On the hunt for highly-nutritious whole foods for increased productivity in the workplace to make sure you’re on top of your game at work? You’ll want to read on for the 20 best delicious (and nutritious!) options!
How are Productivity and Nutrition Linked?
Have you ever thought about the fact that your brain needs fuel? Just like your muscles and every other organ in your body – the more you feed it, the better it will work. The difference is, you can’t easily see the results of nourishing your brain.
When you decide to get physically fit, you can see your body change shape. Muscles get toned and you slim down. But when you decide to get mentally fit, the changes happen inside your brain and there may be no obvious signs from the outside.
The changes are definitely, there, though! And they can have a huge impact on your brain and your productivity!
Nutrition, Nutrients and Productivity
If you’ve tried to keep working through while you’re tired, or really hungry, you already know what it feels like to push your brain to its physical limit — it’s hard to concentrate, simple tasks feel extremely complicated and things you never mess up on are suddenly full of mistakes.
Basically, your productivity drops like a rock.
But why, exactly, do exhaustion and hunger mess with your productivity so much?
It’s because your productivity depends on your brain’s ability to receive, send and coordinate signals — three tasks that require lots of energy and nutrients.
It really is just like using a muscle! When your muscles are tired, you know you need to rest, recover and provide them with energy and nutrients to help them heal!
And it’s exactly the same with your brain! When you’re struggling to concentrate, you need to resupply your brain with the exact same things!
I know all about this first hand!
I work long days and all my work is in the mental sphere. So, I get to watch myself through the day, as my mental energy and concentration rises and falls. I notice that it takes a little while to get into top gear in the morning.
Then there’s a fairly solid block of productivity until hunger takes over and I start to look for distractions. A light snack sees me through until lunchtime when I try to choose a healthy option.
And then there’s the after-lunch slump which usually hits around 3 pm. I know this is caused by low blood sugar levels, so I reach for a whole food pick-me-up, and that keeps me going to finish my work day at around 5 pm.
By the time I get home from work I’m hungry and tired again, but I know I’ve had a productive day, and the reason for that is because I’ve refueled my brain at regular intervals.
What Nutrients Allow Peak Mental Performance?
Much like your muscles, your brain needs three classes of nutrients to thrive (and keep your concentration and productivity and point!). These classes are:
- nutrients that provide energy
- nutrients to use as building blocks
- nutrients that protect brain cells
Let’s check each of these out in more detail!
1. Nutrients That Provide Energy
Now, I know sugar gets a lot of bad press, and for good reason! It’s responsible for a lot of ill health because of the way it’s overused and hidden in almost every commercial food product. But it’s not all bad.
Especially when it comes to your brain!
This is because sugar is actually the only nutrient that your brain can use for fuel!
Sugar is the only energy-providing nutrient that can both effectively get past the special protective membrane around your brain (called the blood-brain barrier) and be burned by your brain cells for energy.
(Note: there is one other type of fuel for your brain — a group of molecules called “ketones”. But ketones aren’t a nutrient because your body makes them out of fats. Since you don’t consume them as part of your diet, we aren’t going to deal with them here, even though they play a very important role in fueling your brain.)
If you’d like to learn more about ketones and their importance in keeping your brain healthy, read Miranda‘s article Ketogenic Diet: Complete Fat Loss Guide for Beginners
Now, the fact that your brain runs on sugar doesn’t give you a license to eat an entire pack of Oreos, expecting improved health and a sharper mind. Oreos are still super-processed junk food that will harm your overall health.
But it does mean healthy, whole-food sources of sugar (such as fruit) are a wonderful option for fueling your brain and keeping it humming along productively.
2. Nutrients that Serve as Building Blocks
Just as many of us forget that our brain needs fuel, we also often forget that our brains are physical organs that need to be physically built and maintained to work well.
There are two classes of nutrients that provide the most important building blocks for your brain: healthy fats and co-factors.
Your brain is, believe it or not, a very fatty thing. As in a whopping 60% of your brain is fat!
And all that fat is not just taking up space for the sake of it! It is really important for your brain function.
Fats provide the building blocks for a fatty, waxy material called myelin that surrounds each of your nerve cells. Myelin protects and insulates your nerves so the electrical signals can flow quickly and efficiently. Basically, it works like the wax coating on electrical wires in your house.
If your myelin coatings break down, it seriously harms how well nerves can send signals and leads to real problems for your health. (The symptoms of multiple sclerosis are caused by myelin coating breakdown, for example.)
All this means that having plenty of fat available to make myelin is important for your brain function and for your productivity to stay high all day long.
Now, not all fats nourish your brain. So, don’t go out and eat some deep-fried fast food thinking you’re doing yourself a favor.
Good fats for your brain are those that stay liquid at room temperature. Avocado oil, olive oil, flaxseed oil, and fish oil are all great examples.
Your brain uses special chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate messages within the brain and throughout the body. If your neurotransmitters are out of balance, your brain won’t be working optimally and your productivity will definitely suffer!
Cofactors are a group of nutrients that provide the building blocks for neurotransmitters. Important co-factors you get from your diet include:
- the B group vitamins
3. Nutrients that Protect Your Brain Cells
Finally, an obvious point! Your brain works better if it’s protected from damage!
And the best nutrients for protecting your brain cells from damage? Antioxidants!
Antioxidants are the heavyweights of protecting brain health. They neutralize dangerous molecules called oxidants, which could otherwise wreak havoc on the health of your brain cells.
Now, you might not notice an immediate boost in work productivity with a single dose of antioxidants, but if you make an effort to increase your antioxidant intake long-term, your overall brain health will improve.
This will mean a better memory, improved concentration, increased learning ability and even a reduced risk of cognitive decline as you age.
Do you know why you experience changes in memory, concentration, and learning as you get older? Read this article to learn how and why your brain changes as you age!
The most important antioxidant nutrients that can help protect your brain are:
- vitamin A
- vitamin C
- vitamin D
- vitamin E
Top 20 Foods for Increased Productivity in the Workplace
So, what foods give you the best doses of these brain-healthy nutrients?
I’m so glad you asked because I’ve put together a list of the top 20 foods for increased productivity at work just for you!
All 20 are whole-foods rich in productivity-promoting nutrients that you can feel good about eating every single day! So, tuck in, enjoy and see your energy levels and productivity soar.
Bonus: Top 5 Foods that Decrease Productivity in the Workplace
So, now you know what to eat for improved productivity at work.
But you shouldn’t forget about the flip side: what not to eat! This is important, too, because you could undo all your efforts by unwittingly choosing foods that decrease productivity.
So, I’m going to let you in on the 5 foods you shouldn’t eat if you’re trying to hit it out of the park at work!
Margarine and other foods made from highly processed oils contain trans-fats (also called “hydrogenated fats”).
These types of fats have been chemically or physically altered from their natural state. This is sometimes done intentionally to preserve the shelf life of foods. Sometimes it occurs accidentally as a side effect of food processing.
In either case, the resulting trans-fats are not healthy for your brain.
See, the way fat activates your metabolism is like a lock and key, and trans-fats are like keys that fit inside the lock but won’t open the door. They’re very similar in nature to regular fats but the way they affect your body is altogether different.
Trans-fats don’t nourish or protect your brain cells as good fats do, so they don’t contribute to health or productivity.
Cheese is the number one source of saturated fat in the western diet. So, statistically, if you want to make sure your saturated fat intake is staying at healthy levels, it’s cheese you’ll want to ditch.
Why should you want to keep your saturated fat intakes down for your brain health?
Well, saturated fats are solid structures. (Think about butter at room temperature compared to olive oil.) So, when they become part of your cells, they give stability to the cells, but, at high concentrations, they also reduce cell receptivity.
Cell receptivity is really important for being energized, awake and productive because your nerve cells need to be able to receive information from the rest of your body in order to work optimally.
3. Fish High in Mercury
Fish is generally considered a health food. But if it’s high in mercury it can be the exact opposite.
Mercury is a known neurotoxin that can contribute to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. If you’re suffering from any of these, you’re definitely not going to be high functioning for work productivity!
Mercury concentrates as it moves through the food chain, so predatory fish such as tuna, shark, and marlin tend to have high mercury concentrations.
To avoid the neurotoxic effects of this heavy metal, choose fish types lower down on the food chain, such as salmon, shrimp, or cod.
Eat fish no more than 2-3 times weekly.
4. Alcoholic Beverages
You only have to try going to work once with a hangover to appreciate that alcohol really is a poison. It creates massive amounts of oxidative stress in your body and forces your liver to work really hard just to get back to normal.
All your diligent work eating well and making sure you get your daily dose of antioxidants can be undone by a single night drinking. If you want full focus and booming productivity at work, you simply can’t drink.
If it’s one of your vices you don’t want to give up, at least try to limit it to only drinking on weekends, and no more than 3-5 drinks each week.
5. Packaged Junk Foods
Packaged junk foods are almost always loaded with artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives! Since these chemicals aren’t actually foods at all, they often cause side effects and many of them are proven or suspected neurotoxins!
Clearly, these are not things you want to be consuming if you’re trying to boost your brain function and improve your work productivity!
Productive Work Week Shopping List
I keep a snack drawer at work and I totally recommend it.
The contents of my snack drawer vary but it usually has:
- fresh fruit (often an apple)
- brazil nuts
- cashew nuts
- bliss balls
- dark chocolate
- peanut butter
That’s as healthy as I can get without depriving myself too much of the things I like to eat!
I also keep almond milk in the work fridge as a vegan creamer for my coffee and in the tea cupboard a selection of herbal teas (including peppermint, licorice and rooibos) and some local honey.
If you want to deck out your snack drawer with brain-boosting snacks, your productive work week shopping list might look something like this nifty (and printable!) one we put together!
If you buy and eat only the things on this list, you’ll be giving your brain everything it needs to be super healthy. You’ll definitely see your productivity at work skyrocket!
Take Home Message
Eating for increased productivity at work means fueling your brain with the right kind of food in the right amount. This means giving your brain plenty of healthy sugars for fuel, healthy fat and cofactors to build up brain structures and neurotransmitters, and antioxidants to protect your brain from damage!
Make sure to get all of these nutrients from healthy, whole-foods (like the ones on this list) that will support the health of your whole body, not just your brain! And make sure to avoid excessive amounts of margarine, cheese, fish high in mercury, alcohol and junk food so that you aren’t undoing all the awesome brain benefits of the healthy foods you’re eating!