If you want your brain and body to perform at their best, they have to be fed the right kind of fuel. You wouldn’t put the wrong fuel in your car and then expect it to zoom off effortlessly. Yet we are potentially doing just that to ourselves each day and then questioning why we feel tired all the time or bloated or are struggling to concentrate.
In my first career in global telecommunication sales and management, my daily food choices were an afterthought. I would just grab food when I could, and regularly swapped eating time for catching up and meetings. It seemed like there was never enough time to fit in all the meetings, calls and emails in my day. My lunch breaks were few and far between. I survived some days on tea and biscuits provided in client meetings. At least it was some food, and surely skipping meals was a good thing as it meant fewer calories and that’s a good thing – isn’t it? The daily challenge wasn’t the role itself; but instead fluctuating energy levels and an inability to concentrate on any one thing for too long.
What if there was another way? Rather than just getting by, we could fly, powered by our food choices. Now as a corporate nutrition and performance coach, I invite you to see food as either potential brain fuel or potential brain fog. What, how and when you eat can have a profound impact on your work.
Then why don’t we do it? Well for one, there’s so much information out there, that’s confusing and conflicting. So where do we start? Second, we assume change must be transformational to be worthwhile. We make grand plans, then our schedules become even more demanding and healthy food is side-lined.
And so, to the Work Fuel Way. An approach that is underpinned by science, easy to understand and live by, yet still could have a profound effect on energy and productivity long term. Let me introduce you to the nine essentials of the Work Fuel Way, which I hope will make a huge difference to your working day:
Be a fuelie: good food is brain fuel
Let’s start with the most obvious thing. ‘We are what we eat.’ Or rather, our brain performs relative to how well we feed and support it. Perhaps you describe yourself as a foodie. Perhaps you don’t. Either way, we hope to inspire you to become a ‘fuelie’. A fuelie is someone who recognises the benefits of increased energy, lower stress and a healthier body. Armed with this mindset a fuelie consciously and consistently makes simple food upgrades.
Lunch is not for wimps: ditch the ‘al desko’
Gordon Gekko in the famous film Wall Street defined the 1980s’ high-octane work ethic. ‘Lunch is for wimps’ was a phrase that cut through into mainstream culture, and you still hear it today. The sad thing is, it’s utter nonsense. Deliberately depriving your body and brain of the nutrients you need to think properly, and surviving on coffee alone doesn’t make you cool, it just makes you a caffeine-fuelled erratic human. It certainly doesn’t make you better at your job. Take a lunch break, it’s an investment in your afternoon.
Don’t eat food with its own jingle: eat food made from plants, not food made in plants
Steer clear of the jingles. There’s a reason you never see the humble broccoli singing in an advertisement. What’s happened over the years is that the idea of being healthy has been hijacked by marketing people. They’ve adopted a two-step strategy to increase their profits: tell us something is bad.
Tell us their product is low in the thing, or the alternative to the bad thing, and therefore the solution.
Be a fuelie: if food needs a marketing team to convince us it’s worth eating, it’s probably not worth eating.
Eat the rainbow: banish the beige
One of the simplest ways to ensure your plate is full of nutrients is to look at the colours on it. We’ve all heard of ‘eat your greens’, but what about all those reds, yellows, purples and oranges? Different-coloured vegetables tend to contain different nutrients, so a rainbow on your plate will help ensure you’re not missing anything out. Simply adding a handful of something colourful to an existing dish to ‘rainbow it up’ is enough to extend your range. Think a half a dozen of cherry tomatoes, a handful of spinach, grate a carrot or add a forkful of sauerkraut. A few seconds of thought, but a massive upgrade. What extra colour can you add to your next meal?
Be label-savvy: the five ingredient rule
If you check the label of porridge oats, it will usually say ‘Ingredients: Porridge oats’. That’s it. Single-ingredient foods are generally the best fuelie choice, because they’re the source food, meaning less processing and manipulating. Similarly, all non-label fresh foods like tomatoes, aubergines and apples are single ingredient foods. These are your go-to food choices. Seems obvious, but you will be surprised how many cupboard staples have a lengthy, complicated ingredient list. Once you start getting into a long list of ‘emulsifiers’ and ‘flavouring agents’ you know it’s not going to be a wise choice. If you are buying food in a packet, check the label and count the ingredients, under five and it’s likely an upgrade to the norm.
Be Ninja Prepared: you eat good food, when you have good food in the fridge
One of the common problems with trying to lead a healthier lifestyle is that we’re busy. It can be hard to find easy, convenient options that are also nutritious. When you’ve been working all day, it’s late and you’re tired your willpower is down and the propensity to succumb to brain zapping food is at an all-time high. Ninja preparedness is all about thinking ahead. It’s like giving a gift to your future self, having good food in when you get home late or packed in your work bag/desk if you’re not. Don’t leave your future self in the lurch, as you will be as busy that day as you are now. Gift your future self with better quality options to set yourself up for more energy and resilience.
Choose consistency over intensity: the micro beats the macro, the tortoise beats the hare
In evaluating your lifestyle choices, remember it’s not what you did today, it’s what you generally do that matters. It’s all about balance. Too many people think that detoxing in January makes up for 11 months of indulgence. And too many people also feel guilty when they have a piece of cake, even though they’ve been filling their body with nutrient-packed food all week. Don’t beat yourself up. Do small things consistently.
Think nutriful before beautiful: your food is fuel, and it doesn’t need to be on Instagram
Over the past few years, society has glamourised food to the point of fetish. We prefer to focus on ‘nutriful’, not beautiful. The point is that you can throw together nourishing, tasty ingredients into a salad bowl in less than five minutes. Life is not a dinner party. You don’t have to see a beautiful Instagram ready meal every time you sit down to eat. Far better to see a ‘nutriful’ plate.
Human not superhero: don’t use up your will power at home
There is a huge freedom that comes from embracing the fact that we are human, not superheroes, particularly when we’re struggling to break free from old habits. Here’s a quick human trick for starters. Don’t use your willpower at home. It’s the place you spend the most time, so don’t give yourself choices to make. If you’re the kind of person that hears the biscuits calling them from the cupboard (like me). Do yourself a favour and don’t let them into the house in the first place.
Work Fuel: The Productivity Ninja Guide to Nutrition, by Graham Allcott and Colette Heneghan. Published by Icon books, £8.99 paperback.