Strategic Diets: What to Eat to Boost Productivity

Serve up your meal with a side of get-to-work.

Welcome to Strategic Diets, a deep dive into specific nutritional needs for your desired outcome—from fitness goals to personal aspirations. 

When you sit down to eat, you’re most likely thinking of feeding your stomach. But the reality is, you’re feeding your brain, too. And if you need to be exceptionally productive—say you have a mile-long to-do list to plow through or an important presentation you need to nail—what you eat can assist or thwart those efforts. 

With the right ingredients, you can boost brain power by as much as 20 percent, according to the World Health Organization. “Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain,” Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science, says in his research about brain foods. “Diet, exercise and sleep have the potential to alter our brain health and mental function. This raises the exciting possibility that changes in diet are a viable strategy for enhancing cognitive abilities.”

When it comes to a productivity-specific diet, the emphasis is on foods that can boost mood, focus, and energy levels. If you need to get to work, follow this nutritional plan.

Make Breakfast a Priority

Research consistently show that eating breakfast regularly leads to improved mood, better memory and more energy. And not any breakfast will get the job done (sorry donut lovers).

Research shows that not only eating breakfast, but eating a quality one, was key in boosting performance in school children. Those who ate a good breakfast made up of dairy, cereal, fruit and bread showed improved educational performance, while those who ate unhealthy foods like chips and sweets showed no boost in educational attainment.

And a study published in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition found that a high-fiber, carbohydrate-rich meal was associated with the highest post-breakfast alertness ratings and with the greatest cumulative amount of alertness during the period between breakfast and lunch.

It’s also important to “eat a good source of protein at breakfast to stabilize blood-glucose levels throughout the day for steady energy to the body and brain,” said  Erin Palinski Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. Try half a cup of low-fat cottage cheese with ¾ cup fresh berries or a veggie omelet (eggs also contain a fat-like B vitamin called choline that enhances memory and reaction time).

Eat at Regular Intervals

If you’re someone who scarfs down breakfast and doesn’t think about food again until your stomach starts speaking up at the 4 o’clock meeting, it’s time to start scheduling in a lunch break. It’s not just what you eat, but when: Eating regular meals and nutritious afternoon snacks can improve cognitive performance, and the lack of consistent fuel can have the opposite effect—causing productivity to plummet.

“Avoid skipping meals and inconsistent eating patterns to prevent drops in blood glucose levels,” said Palinski-Wade. “The brain’s main source of energy is glucose, so you want to maintain steady blood-glucose levels throughout the day to perform at your peak. For this reason, eating every two to four hours should help to provide you with the energy you need to stay focused and alert.”

The Importance of Glucose: Your Brain’s Source of Energy

“The brain works best with about 25 grams of glucose circulating in the blood stream—about the amount found in a banana,” said Leigh Gibson, leading brain researcher.

Where do you get this glucose? Low-glycemic carbohydrates. The glycemic index measures how much a carbohydrate-containing food raises your blood-glucose levels. Foods with a low glycemic index (like beans, whole grains and fruit) gradually release glucose into your bloodstream, which helps keep blood sugar stable and optimizes cognitive function.

“Slow-digesting carbohydrates are your best form of short- and long-term energy,” said Palinski-Wade. “Simple carbohydrates are digested rapidly leading to spikes and crashes in energy.”

So while you may have the urge to reach for a bag of chips or candy from the vending machine—don’t. Instead, turn towards whole grains, fruits, vegetables and milk or yogurt which contain carbohydrates that are more slowly digested, providing steady energy throughout the day. Because of this, Palinski Wade recommends eating a good source of slow-digested carbohydrate about one hour before an important meeting or task to optimize cognitive function.

Nutrients That Boost Focus and Memory

When it comes to enhancing brain function, there are a few nutrients that are VIPs. “Eat foods rich in choline such as eggs, peanut butter, and wheat germ,” said Palinski-Wade. “Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine which is needed for memory, mental function, and thinking.”

Omega-3 fatty acids—found in salmon and walnuts—can also improve focus and cognitive function, and studies have shown they may even be able to reverse the negative impact of a high-sugar diet on mental abilities.

Finally, magnesium (found in nuts and seeds, broccoli, and oatmeal) and B vitamins (found in whole grains, fish, and fruits and vegetables) are nutrients that help to convert food into energy.

For a Quick Boost: Water and Carbs

Heading to an important meeting or working on deadline? Look’s like you need a boost, and fast.  “Even though a high-sugar snack may seem like a good option, the excess sugar can overload your brain and cause a decline in mental clarity and focus, not to mention an energy crash shortly after,” said Palinski-Wade. “For short term energy, sip on 8 to 10 ounces of cold water and consume a slow-digested carbohydrate (such as a piece of fruit or whole-grain bread) in the half hour window leading up to your event/meeting.”

Your pre-meeting on-the-go power snack: One ounce of almonds with one individual bag of freeze-dried fruit. “The go-to brand I recommend is Brother’s All-Natural Apple Cinnamon Fruit Crisps since you can buy them almost anywhere and the only ingredient is fruit,” said Palinski-Wade. “It’s shelf stable and quick and non-messy to eat on the way to a meeting.”

Hydration is Key

Now that your food is on point, remember that beverages aren’t off the hook: Studies show that even short periods of fluid restriction lead to reductions in the subjective perception of alertness and the ability to concentrate and is linked with increases in self-reported tiredness.

“Drink at least 8 cups of water per day—even slight dehydration can decrease energy levels and impair cognitive function,” said Palinski-Wade. “Drink a large glass of cold water 10 to 15 minutes before an important meeting. The cold temperature will help to stimulate your senses and the hydration will help to keep you alert and focused.”

Productivity Zappers: Refined Carbs, Sugar and Overeating

With what we know about the important role that low-glycemic foods play in bolstering our energy levels, its only logical that high-glycemic foods have the opposite effect. With that in mind, skip sugary and highly processed foods that will spike blood sugar and then have you crashing, leaving you tired and sluggish (and snapping at people in the break room). High blood sugar coupled with a cognitive task has been associated with elevated cortisol—a hormone known to impair memory in high doses, said Gibson.

And don’t overeat. A study published the journal Cell showed that the brain may react to excess food as if it were a pathogen. The resulting immune response can cause cognitive deficits such as those associated with Alzheimer’s.

So resist that massive bacon egg and cheese from the street cart on your way to work and the allure of a five-dollar foot long at lunch, and fill your menu with these productivity-boosting homemade meals instead.