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How to Eat Right on the Job

Other than getting a href=";col1">good
night's sleep, there's probably no other thing that
impacts your productivity and mood at work more than what you eat. Yet you
probably give little thought to what you consume before and during work,
defaulting instead to what's convenient, cheap, and tasty. And when
you do think twice about what you eat, it's usually in the context of
a diet that's focused on losing weight rather than improving your
cognitive functioning and energy levels. Fortunately, there are a few basic
food rules that go a long way towards achieving these latter goals. Here are
the best of them.

Balance What You Eat, Whenever You Eat

In 1956, the United States Department of Agriculture produced
its “Basic Four” guide promoting the daily consumption of
foods from four main groups — meat, dairy, grains, and vegetables.
But today, nutritionists talk about a different set of food groups —proteins,
carbohydrates (which produce glucose), fats, and fiber — and a
different way to combine them. Instead of having a few helpings from each group
every day, they recommend having something from each of the four groups every
time you sit down to eat. And, yes, that includes carbs, which certain popular
diets restrict. Why? Because the combination of carbs and protein (and to a
lesser extent, fats and fiber) regulates your glucose levels and keeps your
mood and mental ability on an even keel.

Moreover, each food group brings unique brain-boosting benefits
to the table. “Research suggests that meals with more protein and
fats are associated with better-sustained attention, focus, and concentration,”
says Tufts research psychologist Kristen D’Anci. “Meals
that have a higher carbohydrate content seem to be more calming and have fairly
consistent positive effects with memory.” Cut back on either group
and you’re missing half the benefits that food can offer.

Neglect Carbs at Your Own Peril

The research here is clear: Cutting carbs may shrink your
waistline, but doing so will shrink your brainpower, too. “The
popular low-carb and no-carb diets have the strongest potential for negative
impact on thinking and cognition,” says Tufts psychology professor Holly
A. Taylor. In a href="">2008
study Taylor conducted, dieters who lowered their blood-sugar levels by
cutting carbohydrates from their meals immediately performed worse on
memory-based tasks than those who simply reduced total calories by the same
amount. When they started eating carbs again, their memory skills quickly

Brain cells require twice the amount of energy needed by other
cells in your body because they never rest. And high-carb foods like pasta,
bread, fruit, and rice produce the brain’s favorite fuel —
glucose. “Your brain only wants to burn glucose,” says
Shawn Talbott, a nutritional biochemist and author of A Guide to
Understanding Dietary Supplements: Magic Bullets or Modern Snake Oil
. It
can burn protein if it has to, Talbott adds, “but it’s like
trying to run a gasoline engine on diesel.”

If you are on a low-carb diet, we’re not
suggesting you go out and eat a loaf of Wonder Bread. There are plenty of “good”
carbs (such as fruit, vegetables, and brown rice) that will supply your brain
with all the fuel it needs.

Pack in the Protein to Sustain Your Energy and Enhance
Your Mood and Memory

Proteins such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, beans, and nuts slow
the absorption of glucose so your brain gets a long and steady flow of fuel,
rather than the brief blast you get from eating carbs and sugary foods (fats
and fiber also help with this). And protein also brings its own set of brain
boosters to the party. The amino acids found in meats, poultry, fish, and eggs
help produce the neurotransmitters — serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine
— that keep us focused, energetic, and upbeat.

Studies also suggest that certain minerals typically found in
high-protein foods also enhance memory. A href="">2005
study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that adding zinc —
found in meat, seafood, eggs, and milk — to the diets of
middle-school kids improved their memories and attention spans. After receiving
20 milligrams of zinc a day, five days a week, for 10 to 12 weeks, their
reaction time decreased by 12 percent, their word recognition rose 9 percent,
and their ability to sustain attention on a task increased 6 percent.

Hot Tip

Fat Is Beautiful ... for Your Brain

You probably know that omega-3 fatty acids are good for
your heart. But they’re great brain food, too. The fats found in
salmon, walnuts, and kiwi improve learning and memory and help fight against
mental disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and dementia, according to a href="">2008 report from
the Brain Research Institute at UCLA. The fats support the synapses in the
brain where much of our cognitive functioning occurs.

Eat Smaller Amounts, and Eat More Frequently

If you want to keep up your energy and performance levels, the
last thing you need is a three-course lunch (or a three-egg cheese omelet for
breakfast). The same thing goes for big dinners if you’re working
late. Too much food — even if it’s well balanced —
is going to make you drowsy because it introduces too much glucose for your
body to handle at one time. When that happens, your liver reacts by storing the
glucose, and your brain actually gets less fuel than it needs. “If
you eat too much, you’re going to get sleepy, and there’s
really no way to recover from that,” says Talbott. “Five to
six small meals tend to make people perform much better than three squares.”

Big Idea

How to Keep Things in Proportion

In addition to controlling your carb intake, portion and
proportion play a big role in regulating glucose. Talbott recommends a highly
sophisticated tool for measuring food amounts — your hand. Whether it’s
breakfast, lunch, or dinner, he says the portions are the same: “Your
fist is the size of the carbs; your palm is the size of the protein. Make an OK
sign with your thumb and index finger, and that’s how much fat you
should have. Open your hand as wide as it can go; that’s the amount
of fruits and vegetables. That’s going to be a well-balanced mix.”

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