How does the food we eat affect productivity? Does a better diet mean better productivity? In July, my boss Graham focused on the idea of the brain and body as tool, and whether physical condition influences productivity. Graham enlisted the help of a few nutrition gurus to prescribe a diet overhaul aimed at maximizing energy and attention. He also spent 3 days in the middle of the month fasting. The idea came from a friend, Mohammed at Productive Muslim. They thought it would be a great way to understand – albeit only briefly – one of the key tenets of Islam, and in the end, hopefully bring some new productivity ideas to the discipline of fasting.
The hypothesis part this month is pretty simple: our brain needs the right fuel. Anyone who expects to regularly eat terrible food and maintain optimum energy is clearly in massive denial. The fasting element came about really as a contrast to the rest of the month, but increasingly people are viewing fasting as a useful way to manage and regulate the body’s metabolism too, so I’m also curious to find out if this is my experience.
Graham’s Hopes and Fears?
I eat pretty well already, but I hope the month encourages me to review my regular diet and make improvements. I also hope my fasting experience provides an interesting contrast.
My fears are simple things like giving up sugar in my tea. I don’t drink coffee but I view tea as one of life’s true pleasures. The thought of drinking tea without sugar, let alone shifting to fruit teas for a whole month fills me with dread.
My other fear is that I end up spending a lot of time preparing food! I cook only a very small number of the meals I eat (as I’m on the move quite a lot) and whilst Brighton can be really great for healthy food on the move, when I’m elsewhere in the country it can be much harder. So if I’m right that being uber-healthy means a lot more effort then I’m not looking forward to spending more time in the kitchen myself.
I was expecting the contrast to be “great productivity” and “flat productivity”. The outcome wasn’t quite as simple as that.
For the first part and end part of the month, I ate a controlled diet, written for me by Colette Heneghan of Optimum Living. Colette quickly established my diet was lower in proteins than it needed to be. I do eat a lot of fish, but other than that I’m veggie, and as much as I do love a salad, I probably don’t eat enough of them or vary them up. I also cut out a lot of the things in my diet that contain the sugars that leave your energy levels roller coastering along between sugar high and sugar low. This included the obvious: sugar in my tea, chocolate, and biscuits. But it also meant some changes to my diet from what I thought were perfectly good meals for energy: jacket potatoes, beans on toast, pasta, cornflakes for breakfast… These are all high in refined sugars and so, had to go.
I was already into porridge as the breakfast of champions. On this new diet, I added berries and nuts to it to ‘balance’ out the carbs. And on other days, my breakfast was a high-protein omelet with added onion, tomato, spinach and pepper.
For lunch, it would usually be a salad, perhaps with some oily fish thrown in. Dinner was things like fish with rice, vegetable stews and other hearty stuff. And in between meals, gone were the usual chocolate or biscuits, to be replaced by fruit, nuts and the legendary brain fuel shakes.
I have to say that overall I was really impressed with the results. The first couple of days were difficult – I was craving caffeine and sugar, I had headaches and it felt a little distracting. It wasn’t really until a few days in that I started to realize I no longer had an energy dip in the afternoons – and I didn’t have that post-lunch lull either! One day I found myself still ‘in the zone’ and looked at my watch- It was already 7pm and I still felt like it was about 5. Time flies when you do.
The Ramadan part of the month was fascinating, as much for the cultural exchange aspects as the diet stuff.
I was expecting the fasting part to be “bad for productivity”. For the first day or so, it was. My body was shocked into a sluggishness, I had a headache again just like at the start of the month, and I didn’t feel much like cracking into the difficult stuff. But as the 3 days went on, my body started to adjust. I felt lighter, I no longer had to worry about getting up from the desk to get food or drinks and I was struck by a profound sense that what I was doing was part of something bigger. I’m not talking about religious conversion here (although I’m sure if I was religious it would increase this felt sense even more), but just culturally the fact that I was joining so many millions of people around the world in doing something that’s truly humbling.
I felt more grounded, more present, more in touch with my own mortality somehow. And it put me ‘in the zone’ on day three just as much as my days of brain fuel shakes and snacks with nut butters. What was gone was the caffeine crashing and sugar roller coasters and I think I’d rather lose those things from my diet completely than go through the highs and lows. There’s a level of focus when you know that you’re limited in your energy, that you’re conscious of the need to look after yourself and that you’re working day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute on being kind to yourself.
Overall, my conclusion is that fuel does really matter. But giving your brain the right combinations is what’s at the heart of finding that proactive attention. So much as my optimum diet gave me hours of concentration, so did eating nothing all day but being kind to myself.
You can read more about Graham’s experience, as well as the full articles that this post borrowed exerts for HERE
Left Wanting More?
Read about Graham’s other Extreme Productivity Experiments
How to Eat Like a Ninja
How the food you eat makes you more (or less) productive (Via Lifehacker)