Athletes and people getting in shape need to choose the foods in their diet carefully to maximize muscle recovery and increase athletic performance. However, many fail to realize that diet impacts much more than just athletic abilities and weight — food affects your emotional state, mental acuity and energy levels. Proper nutrition is crucial for optimal performance in all aspects of daily life, work included.

You wouldn’t know this by looking around the office, though. Most workplace lunches consist of greasy foods or refined carbohydrates such as pastas, sandwiches loaded with cheese and mayo, or sometimes nothing but a cola and some vending machine picks. Offices that are kind enough to provide free food and drink often offer stimulants such as soda and coffee, as well as refined carbohydrates and sugars like bagels, donuts, cereal and granola bars. While these foods may be comforting to some extent, alleviating stress with their serotonin-producing combination of refined carbohydrates, sugar, fat, and/or salt, they also dim your mental sharpness and energy levels.

How diet affects work performance

According to nutrition expert Clyde Wilson, it all comes down to biology and how your body handles different foods. Your brain runs pretty much exclusively on glucose, so contrary to the low carb diets gaining popularity in the media, the best diet for mental performance will actually include some healthy carbohydrates (think fruits, vegetables, and legumes) in order to supply the brain with the energy it needs to perform optimally.

However, while foods like refined cereals, bagels, granola bars, pastas and breads offer glucose in the form of easily digested starches and sugars, the fact that they contain an abundance of rapidly digesting carbohydrates actually backfires, because your body can’t use the flood of glucose all at once. Instead, these foods release a lot of insulin into your bloodstream, triggering your fat cells to soak up the glucose calories not being used and to store them as fat. To add insult to injury, the insulin your body does release actually clears most of the glucose from your bloodstream, leaving very little for your brain to run on. The result? You end up craving more carbohydrates to fuel your brain, and the cycle continues.

A poor diet can also negatively impact your mood. The insulin spike that results from eating refined starches and sugars can leave you with low blood sugar, which adversely affects your emotions and ability to think quickly and clearly. Furthermore, according to U.S. News and World Report, diets that are low in specific nutrients such as iron, B vitamins, and Omega-3 fatty acids can lead to depressed moods and low energy levels. As we all know the importance of keeping our emotions on an even keel in the office, it seems in your best interest to consume a diet that provides all the necessary nutrients for you to excel.

Tips for eating on the clock

Making sure you eat healthy during the workday can enhance your focus and increase your energy, giving you the edge you need to tackle everything on your plate. Here are some simple but high-impact steps you can take to boost your mood and productivity:

Eat leafy green vegetables. Leafy green vegetables are some of the healthiest foods you can eat, for a variety of important reasons. Firstly, according to Clyde Wilson and Prevention magazine, non-starchy green vegetables help slow the digestion of starchy carbohydrates — both refined and unrefined varieties. When the digestion of these carbohydrates is slowed, that means your brain and muscles can use them more readily for energy, and your body won’t release as much insulin to store the excess glucose circulating in your bloodstream. Additionally, leafy greens contain compounds that may play an important role in fighting various cancers, boosting your mood, and protecting against various diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Get enough iron. Iron is essential for energy because it is a primary component of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen within the body’s red blood cells to be transported to different parts of the body. Iron deficiency has been linked to decreased cognitive functioning for adults and children alike. Instead of taking supplements (which aren’t as readily absorbed and can be dangerous in large quantities), try adding more iron-rich foods into your diet, such as lean beef, dark meat chicken, tofu, legumes, and dark green vegetables.

Eat enough healthy fats. According to the Los Angeles Times, registered dietitian Elizabeth Somers explains in her book “Eat Your Way To Happiness” how omega-3 fatty acids are essential to proper brain function and mood regulation. In fact, according to Health magazine, deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids may contribute to the prevalence of depression in America. Get a regular dose of omega-3 through fish, fish oil supplements (search for brands that are well known for low mercury levels), flax seeds or walnuts.

Don’t overdo the caffeine. While small amounts of caffeine may boost your alertness and metabolism, it can also increase your aggressiveness, writes Travis Bradberry of Forbes. In addition, a study by Johns Hopkins Medical School found that the increased cognitive performance experienced after consuming caffeine is generally an illusion, as this “boost” is really the caffeine bringing you back to a baseline level of performance. In other words, if you’re hooked on caffeine and don’t have your fix during the day, you’ll actually be performing below your normal productivity levels.

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