The link between nutrition and performance at work

We're told to do cross words, play Sudoko, learn a second language, pick up a musical instrument and constantly engage in new experiences to increase the performance of our brains. But what about the foods we eat?

Perhaps we should be teaching children that the foods they eat on exam day have as much of an impact as the study they do.

"Diet, exercise and sleep have the potential to alter our brain health and mental function," says Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science. "This raises the exciting possibility that changes in diet are a viable strategy for enhancing cognitive abilities, protecting the brain from damage and counteracting the effects of aging".

Studying for exams, burning the midnight oil on uni assignments, and prepping for presentations in the boardroom all require fierce concentration and brainpower. While the average adult brain is only two percent of total bodyweight (remember little Ray in Jerry Maguire lisping "The human head weighs eight pounds?"), it sucks up a whopping 20 per cent of resting metabolic rate. That's much more than any other organ in the body.

Energy from the food we eat helps fuel electrical impulses for learning, memory, and other cognitive tasks. But not all food is created equal. The modern diet of fast food, energy drinks, and high-sugar junk negatively affects synapses and other molecules related to learning and memory. A balanced nutrition plan is the key to boosting brainpower.

Processed carbohydrates and refined sugars will send your blood glucose and concentration levels on an unproductive roller coaster.

Teresa Boyce

The type and timing of your meals has a huge impact on mental alertness and stamina. Kathleen Alleaume, nutritionist and founder of health and communications consultancy The Right Balance, believes there are four key nutrients to optimise brain function.

1. Low GI

Your brain needs a constant supply of fuel and uses up almost a quarter of the body's entire energy budget. Low GI (Glycaemic Index) carbs provide a steady supply of glucose to the brain and an improved ability to concentrate, sharpen memory and facilitate learning. Opt for brown rice, quinoa, seasonal vegetables and sweet potato.

2. B Group vitamins

Vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid help the brain use glucose to function. B vitamins also maintain the production of neurotransmitters, which helps to regulate our mood. Low levels of B vitamins are believed to be associated with increased stress and in some cases, depression. You can find B vitamins in whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, cheese, eggs, lean red meat, fish, legumes and nuts.

3. Antioxidants

Deficiencies in vitamin A, C and E are thought to increase the signs of age-related memory loss. To ensure you achieve the recommended daily amount, simply eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables. Alleaume suggests choosing foods that are local and in season as they contain the highest amounts of vitamins and minerals.

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4. Essential fats

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) can't be made by the body and must be obtained through the foods we eat. Since 60 per cent of the brain is made up of fat, it's essential to feed it the right type. The most effective are omega-3 fats, which occur naturally in oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines) as EPA and DHA. Other good sources include linseed (flaxseed) oil, soya bean oil, pumpkin seeds, walnut oil and soya beans. Grass-fed red meat is also a good option to top up on omega-3 fats. Low DHA levels have been linked to a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and memory loss.

The bigger brain picture

Keep your cells functioning at their best by combining low GI, B vitamins, antioxidants and essential fats with plenty of vibrant fruits and vegetables, minimising your intake of processed foods and staying properly hydrated throughout the day.

"No matter what your nutrition views are, when it comes to brain power and concentration it is all about nutrient-rich foods", says Teresa Boyce, Head Nutritionist at The Performance Clinic. "Processed carbohydrates and refined sugars will send your blood glucose and concentration levels on an unproductive roller coaster ride of highs and lows, instead fuel your body and brain with foods in their most natural state. To stabilise blood glucose levels include quality protein and fats within each meal, don't over eat and always make nutrient rich vegetables the bulk of your meal."

If you have an important exam or presentation coming up, make sure you plan your meals and snacks in advance to optimise brain function. And make sure you don't miss out on the most important meal of the day – breakfast. Research shows eating a nutritious breakfast every day improves mental alertness and performance on cognitive tasks.

What do you eat when you're at work? Let us know in the comment section below. 

Workplace performance expert Andrew May has been helping his white-collar clients achieve both physical and mental gains for decades, and has learned a trick or 20 – plus a few of the pitfalls – along the way. 

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