Eating for Performance
There are many factors affecting our professional performance: You just have to google to find a whole bunch of factors, such as the temperature and air quality at your office, ergonomics of the furniture, the noise level, the internal reward system, and of course personal factors such as your own education and experience. However, hardly ever will you find the mentioning of nutrition, sleep or exercising, when in fact, we all know on some level how much they affect our performance.
· Exercise (the lack of it, or overexercising)
· General stress level (from work, from relationships, from money…)
· Fresh air
· And of course: Food
ALL of those are crucial. So even though in this article, we are going to focus on food, it should be clear that eating well cannot ultimately compensate for sitting all day and not moving. Or for not sleeping sufficiently.
How exactly does food affect our performance?
It`s very straight-forward: Food provides the energy we need to function and perform physically and mentally. Whenever we eat, the food is broken down into its components, which are then either used for important metabolic functions, or for energy supply. So yes, food is fuel and what and how much we put into our tank affects how long we can go before running out of gas. So it’s not about eating less or no matter what, but about eating well and enough.
Because food is not only fuel or calories, it is also information. It literally talks to all your cells, conveying different messages, influencing hormones, enzymes and even DNA. This ability to turn on or off certain genes is called “epigenetics” and clearly shows how even if we have certain genetic predispositions, we still have a lot of power over whether or not those genes will actually express themselves or not.
Blood sugar is key
In order to optimize energy and thus performance, blood sugar is key. In an ideal world, you would want to experience a gentle rise and fall in blood sugar over about 4-5 hours after a meal – in a way that your energy and mood feels stable and consistent. When it`s time to eat again, you are hungry, but not to the point of irritability. On the other hand, if after a meal you experience a strong surge in energy, almost to the point of feeling hyper, but then experience it crashing as quickly as it came, maybe even lower than before the meal, feeling hungry, tired, weak and/or irritable again shortly after you ate and/or craving another sugar or caffeine fix, then it is likely that your blood sugar is out of balance. Rather than showing a stable curve, yours is much steeper, rising much higher and falling much lower. It`s as if you were burning a dry newspaper. This case is likely if you are drawn to sweets and caffeine. Finally, a third, rather rare possibility is that your blood sugar never really rises to a point of feeling energetic. Rather, you feel sluggish all the time. It`s as if you were trying to burn wet wood. This case is most likely if you are eating a very low carb diet when you already have low blood sugar. It should be clear that only in the first scenario, where we enjoy stable energy for a prolonged time will we be able to be at peak performance and productivity. The sluggish energy of scenario 3 and the constant energy rollercoasters of scenario 2 will be translated into the work we do and the results we produce. It will also directly affect our relationships at work and as such the functionality of our team or division.
Common signs of blood sugar imbalance are:
• Feeling wired but tired
• Feeling Cold
• Feeling hungry quickly after meal
• Feeling shaky or jittery
• Pounding heartbeat
• Blurry vision
• Pale skin
• Night sweats or waking up hungry in the night
• Concentration issues
• Increased thirst
• Frequent peeing
• Slow-healing cuts and sores
• Increased fat storage (esp. around the belly)
• Weight gain or inability to lose weight (sometimes also weight loss)
• PCOS, estrogen dominance or chronically high cortisol
How to stabilize blood sugar and avoid those rollercoaster?
There are many factors, such as food quantity, eating rhythm, sleep, slowing down.. but here I am going to mention the main 3 ones:
1. Optimize food quality
2. Optimize macronutrient ratio
3. Avoid powerful substances
Optimizing food quality
This is about eating farm-fresh, nutrient-dense, whole, unprocessed or artisanally processed REAL food as opposed to industrially highly processed edible food products. While natural food (food like you could find it on a farm or grow in your own garden) is rich in nutrients and fiber, industrially processed food products are usually devoid of both. Yet vitamins, minerals and also fiber help to slow down digestion and as such have a lower impact on blood sugar. Processed foods are often loaded with refined (or “natural”) sugar, white flour, and cheap vegetable oils, all of which affect blood sugar negatively, and also promote inflammation in the body (which then indirectly leads to an increase in blood sugar as well).
Optimizing macronutrient ratio
Macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Carbohydrates have the biggest impact on blood sugar, so a simple rule to follow is to never eat them all by themselves, but to always combine them with fat and protein. Fat and protein stabilize blood sugar directly, but also indirectly, by nourishing important hormone- and energy-producing glands. If those glands lack essential fats or proteins, this is a stressful situation for the body. Stress hormones increase blood sugar, so eating enough fat and protein at every meal helps to avoid that.
The ideal macronutrient ratio is highly individual, but as a general rule we can aim for 50-50 (carbs vs. protein+fat).
Avoiding powerful substances
Powerful substances are sugar, caffeine and alcohol. The more unstable our blood sugar, the more we crave them. Unfortunately, they all have a strong impact on blood sugar, keeping us in a vicious cycle. Yes, even coffee without sugar negatively affects blood sugar and as such energy and performance. This is because coffee stimulates your body to produce stress hormones – and stress hormones increase blood sugar. Alcohol even works on both ends: it raises stress hormones, and usually contains a lot of sugar!
This is just a small taste of how your or your employees` performance can be optimized through nutrition. If you want to learn more about what I can do for you in this regard, please click here.