How You Eat Affects How You Work

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
July 08, 2015

What and when you eat on the job can impact your work success.

You get a good night’s sleep and arrive at your office well prepared and confident. You have no doubt your meeting with your boss or your presentation with co-workers will go fine.

However, if you aren’t paying attention to what and when you eat during the day, your on-the-job performance might not go as well as you planned. Researchers have found what you chow down on and drink can impact your behavior, ability to concentrate, and productivity.

It’s not a new idea that what you put into your body can slow you down or speed you up. Consider coffee. A cup or two in the morning helps us not only wake up but think more clearly as we start our day. Scientists have confirmed it is, in fact, a cognitive enhancer that keeps you alert and helps concentration.

But if you keep drinking cup after cup of coffee without considering how much caffeine you are imbibing, you could end up with a headache and feeling anxious, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The amount of caffeine you tolerate without feeling jittery depends on personal tolerance, but the FDA says anything over five cups a day is too much.  

The food you eat, or don’t eat, can also directly influence your mood, thinking ability, and work performance. Skip breakfast and maybe lunch and you can run low on glucose, which your brain needs to stay focused and alert.

Grab a sugar doughnut or processed cereal for breakfast or during a coffee break and you’ll get quick release of glucose from these foods. That will make you feel energetic for a short while, but you’ll soon experience an energy crash as glucose levels fall.

What you eat at lunch can also determine how clearly you think as you tackle work in the afternoon. If you opt for a high-fat mid-day meal, like a cheese-rich dish or bacon burger, you’ll have more sustained energy than if you eat a high-carb meal like pasta. However, your digestive system has to work harder to process high-fat food — which lowers oxygen levels in the brain and can make you long for an afternoon nap, according to Ron Friedman, PhD, author of “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.”

A more balanced meal, like a salad with grilled chicken, makes better sense.

Unfortunately, just having this information doesn’t mean you’ll automatically change the way you eat during your workday in order to change your mood and raise your productivity — especially if you are tired and hungry. That’s when glucose levels plummet, self-control typically flies out the window, and grabbing a bag of chips or a quick milkshake becomes awfully tempting, according to Florida State University research.

A study from the University of Waterloo in Canada suggests a healthy lifestyle may boost activity in an area of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with not only solving problems but also keeping automatic, knee-jerk reactions in check. Engaging in aerobic exercise, not drinking alcohol to excess, and getting sufficient sleep are proven methods to maximize the strength of the prefrontal cortex, according to doctoral student Cassandra Lowe, who headed the research.

The result can be better self-control when you are tempted to wolf down a doughnut for a quick burst of energy that will later make you groggy.

"In the end, if you want to improve your self-control when it comes to snacking, structuring your environment to avoid temptations is crucial; but beyond this, the key is to keep your brain in shape, so that you are up to the task when you encounter temptations. Let's face it, they are everywhere," said Peter Hall, PhD, senior author on the study.  

Perhaps the most important way to eat for a successful work day is to plan ahead. Studies show deciding what you will eat, and when, can help you make the healthiest decisions.

So don’t wait until you are starving to reach for food — decide in advance what you are eating when you take a coffee break and for lunch.

It makes sense to have healthy snacks on hand, too. A study from the University of Otago in New Zealand concluded eating fruits and vegetables can actually help you have a better, focused, and more successful work day.  

Volunteers monitored what they ate and recorded their behaviors and mood over the course of about two weeks. The researchers analyzed the results and found those who ate more fruits and vegetables were not only happier but felt more creative and engaged in their work.

The scientists theorized the antioxidants in the healthy snacks soothe inflammation in the body, boost mood, and improve memory. They also noted that fruits and vegetables contain nutrients that increase the production of a neurotransmitter, dopamine, linked to feeling motivated, curious, and engaged in activities, including work.


March 05, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN