Work snacks: what you eat directly impacts productivity

How many times have you started the day eating a nutritious breakfast, dodged the celebratory cakes and muffins at morning tea, and crunched on a quinoa salad for lunch, only for discipline to hit the wall mid-afternoon as you wander off in search of a sugar-laden vending machine?

It happens more than you might think. It is easier to make sound food choices with set meals, especially when at home. But pressure from deadlines, last-minute curveballs, and travelling to new or unfamiliar spaces means many of the best-laid plans get thrown out the window when the hunger bug kicks in and our inner voice starts screaming "just – feed – me – now"…

Newsflash: the foods you eat have a direct correlation with cognitive performance and a direct impact on productivity.

We focus so much time and effort on productivity and efficiency: we review meeting processes, information technology and systems, and a range of methodologies to improve creativity and get more done in less time. But so many organisations miss one of the biggest opportunities to impact output, creativity and overall employee health and wellbeing: you guessed it, food.

My kitchen rules

The recent move of the company I work for, KPMG, of 2500 people to Barangaroo in Sydney has been an opportunity to put some old habits to rest. And for me, it was a chance to work with the team behind the move to test out some innovative approaches to snacking in the office.

Together with nutritionist Teresa Kryger, our chef Ian McKenzie and the head of our hospitality services Stephen Wales, we have worked through our office food offerings from snacks to fine dining with a goal of maximising good fats and increasing our offerings of fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables.

Driving dopamine

One of the most obvious changes is snacks, where we have ditched biscuits and introduced nuts and dried fruit. Nuts are high in protein and fuel the body with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps with alertness, creativity, learning and concentration.

Foods don't actually contain dopamine. Our body creates it by breaking down the amino acid Tyrosine. Dopamine is linked to brain processes that control movement and emotional responses. Eating nutrient-dense foods like nuts also increases the satiety index (feeling of fullness), which results in more control over potential hunger cravings, which is something you don't get from a packet of crisps or a chocolate bar.

The vicious cycle of unsatisfying snacking has been the main factor in our decision not to include junk food vending machines at our new office.

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So to help with brain processes, eat more of the foods that increase dopamine, such as:

  • Protein such as beef, chicken, cheese, eggs, fish
  • Folate-rich vegies including broccoli, spinach and cauliflower
  • Fruits including apples, blueberries, watermelon, bananas, prunes and strawberries
  • Nuts and seeds

Eat less of the foods that may reduce dopamine, including:

  • High-sugar snacks and soft drinks, artificial sweeteners, processed carbohydrates and additives

Choose the food, alter the mood

A 2014 article in Harvard Business Review outlines a study in the British Journal of Health Psychology that showed eating fruits and vegetables throughout the day isn't just good for the body and the waistline, it is also good for the mind. Study participants reported their food intake, mood and behaviours over a period of 13 days, and what did the research show? People were more creative, felt happier and were more engaged the more fruit and vegetables they ate.

Food and movement have a huge relationship to performance, and organisations and employers can stimulate productivity and creativity not just by the physical environment and its use, but the foods they provide.

Why not keep a food diary for a week – you might be surprised just how much incidental snack food you eat. We really are what we eat.

What are your work-day eating and snacking habits? Do you notice a correlation between what you eat and how well you work? Let us know in the Comments section.

Workplace performance expert Andrew May is a Partner at KPMG Performance Clinic, a best-selling author and keynote speaker. He has spent the past 20 years helping business leaders and their teams improve performance, productivity and wellbeing.

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