What to Eat Now ... for Every Work Situation

Last Updated Jul 1, 2009 5:37 PM EDT

Just as you wouldn't put high-octane premium gas in the family van for a trip to the neighbor's, or regular gas in your high-end sports car when you're taking it out for a spin, you need to put the right fuel in your tank for the tasks and situations at hand. That means choosing foods that will rev up your brain and body and keep them running at optimum efficiency throughout the day. In general, a mix of carbs and proteins provides that brain boost by giving you a quick shot of energy (the carbs) and the ability to sustain it over a long period of time (the protein).

Here’s what to eat when confronted by these all-too-common work situations.

Situation: It’s 8:17 a.m., your alarm never went off, and you’ve got 43 minutes to get to the weekly status meeting. There’s no time for breakfast, but you’re a zombie without it.

  • What you should eat: If you can’t sit down to scrambled eggs and whole-grain toast, make the toast anyway, smear some peanut butter on it, and take it to go. The combo of carbs and proteins will keep you alert and focused for hours. In a pinch, you can grab a whole-grain, high-protein power bar. It won’t keep you going as long, but it should get you through the meeting, after which you can run to the corner deli for an egg-and-cheese sandwich. In addition to being a cheap source of protein, eggs contain tryptophan, an amino acid that has a calming effect (unless you devour half a carton of them, that is, in which case you may fall asleep). So when your boss goes ballistic, you can sit back with a smile and wait for it to blow over.
  • Situation: You were stressed about work and didn’t sleep well last night. Now it’s 10:30 in the morning and you’re nodding off at your cubicle.

  • What you should eat: For a quick pick-me-up, grab a handful of trail mix with nuts and dried fruit, or a bowl of bran cereal and almonds. Each of these snacks contains a combination of carbs and protein to pick you up and keep you alert and energized until lunch. And both bran and nuts offer an added bonus: They contain magnesium, a mineral that helps convert sugar into energy.
  • Situation: Lunch with the new client was fun ... a little too much fun, in fact. One glass of wine has left you in a torpor — and you still have four hours of work ahead of you.

  • What you should eat: Coffee can blunt the effects of drowsiness, so, by all means, grab your mug and head for the machine. But otherwise, you’ll just have to wait for your body to metabolize the alcohol. While food can’t bail you out this time, it can keep you from getting into trouble next time. Before you start sipping Chardonnay at noon, order an appetizer that has some cheese in it. Fats help to slow the absorption of alcohol into the blood.
  • Situation: There was a mistake in your PowerPoint presentation and you had to skip lunch to fix it. Now your stomach is growling and so are you.

  • What you should eat: Quick, open your desk drawer and pull out that bag of jelly beans you’ve been saving there for a special occasion. Eat a handful and feel your blood sugar take off. Jelly beans are like eating pure glucose. Follow that up a few minutes later with a fistful of peanuts to slow the absorption of glucose and prolong your energy boost. After your presentation, eat a late, light, and balanced lunch with a mix of carbs and protein to maintain that steady flow of brain fuel.
  • Situation: It’s 6 p.m. and your boss just handed you a stack of research to plow through by tomorrow morning. Looks like you’ll be dining at your desk tonight — and struggling to keep alert.

  • What you should eat: To keep focused and sharp throughout the evening, you’ll need protein at dinner. But if you overeat, you’ll put yourself to sleep. The solution? Eat a balanced meal of carbs and protein, but eat only half of what you order and put the rest in the office fridge for later. If you’re getting Chinese, a good bet is chicken and broccoli with brown rice. Broccoli contains the mineral boron, which is thought to increase memory and attention span while cutting the time it takes to complete tasks. In a few hours, when you’re hungry again, grab a Snickers bar or the rest of your dinner and get another brain boost to take you the rest of the way.
  • Situation: You’re catching a late-night flight overseas for a tour of the new manufacturing facilities. You’ll visit four countries in 10 days and cross multiple time zones. Your body will be totally out of whack.

  • What you should eat: When in Rome, eat when the Romans do. The best way to avoid jet lag is to adopt the schedule of your destination — sleeping, working, and eating when everyone else does. That’s the premise behind the elaborate Anti-Jet-Lag Diet developed by the Argonne National Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Energy. The military tested it on 168 National Guard troops, and the results were compelling: On an east-bound flight across multiple time zones, those using the diet were 16 times less likely to get jet lag than those who hadn’t, while in the other direction, that figure was almost 8.

    The diet is based on a feast-or-fast schedule, and here’s an example: Three days before flying east from New York to London you “feast” and have three huge meals. Breakfast and lunch are high in protein, which wakes you up; supper is high in carbs, which helps to bring on sleep. The following day you “fast,” eating three small meals that are low in carbs and calories. The third day, you feast again, and on the travel day, you fast. (During this time, you should restrict your coffee drinking to between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., which is when caffeine seems to have no effect on the body’s rhythms). Now your body is ready to reset itself according to local time.

    On the plane, try to sleep for a few hours. Once you land, you start one last feast day with a big breakfast. By the next day, you’ll be fully adjusted and can eat normally. The return trip works essentially the same but in reverse. While a bit complicated, the diet has had proven results and is worth doing if it allows you to hit the tarmac running and impress your foreign colleagues.

  • Gail Belsky

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