eating for mental performance and productivity

Eating for Mental Health and Performance

Life for all of us can get pretty busy and overwhelming from time to time. And as life gets busy, healthy eating (or eating at all) often takes a backseat. This can often lead to you feeling more overwhelmed and stressed out, not to mention having lower concentration levels and poor focus. But it is important to note, that it is food that should take priority over all of your tasks ahead in order to help you focus better. Making sure to eat and choosing the right foods to eat is vital to your sustaining or improving your mental health. Here are 10 ways of how you can improve your mental health, performance and boost your productivity levels in a healthy way:

1. Plan your meals ahead of time

Try find time if you can to plan your meals, or better, make your meals ahead of time. This way you can ensure you are going to be eating a healthy, balanced meal and don’t have to add on the extra stress of finding something to eat last minute that most likely will be something unhealthy and high in sugar, salt and fat.

2. Eat regularly!

Eating regularly is important for energy levels as well as brain health. It’s an important step to helping you improve your mental health, performance and productivity. Skipping meals can lead to poor meal choices and overeating, but also can cause a dip in your blood sugar levels. This can lead to feelings of depression and moodiness, as well as headaches and poor concentration. So make sure to have regular meals, at least breakfast, lunch and dinner. Make it a priority over replying to that email, that surely could wait 10 more minutes?

3. Avoid that junk

Sure, junk food is quick, convenient and sometimes tasty, but it is usually high in sugar (or salt) and fat. It is also the type of food that will give you an instant boost guaranteed to be followed by a crash 30 minutes later (or less). If you want to be more productive and better focused, focus on healthy food options and balanced meals or snacks. Include some protein, fibre, fruit or veg and wholegrains in the mix to help. It is better for our body and brain to be slowly fed important nutrients over quick spikes and crashes.

4. Healthy gut, happy brain

When we choose unhealthy junk foods, this can often make you feel sluggish, low in energy and mood. And the opposite occurs when you choose to eat healthy options instead. For many of us, our gut reflects our emotions. Feelings of stress and anxiety can not only affect the choices we make, but also your gut digestion. In order to maintain a healthy, happy gut, it is important to strive for balance. Balance is key as having high amounts of any one macro or micronutrient can alter the bacterial growth in your gut.

Aim for foods rich in fibre (recommended 30g per day in the UK) as well as good hydration levels and regular exercise. Probiotics drinks and yoghurt containing live cultures can help improve specific strands of bacteria in the gut, but only while you continue to take them (1).

5. Protein-rich foods for energy and brain health

Try to include lean and healthy protein with your lunch (and all your main meals). These include eggs, beans, tofu, fish, grilled chicken breast and lean red meat, which can be paired with some veg or salad, and a small portion of carbs at lunchtime. A small portion of nuts and seeds or high protein yoghurt make good snack options.

Protein is not only important for building and repairing muscles and cells, but also for energy levels and brain health. Although protein’s main role is not to supply energy, it can help slow down glucose absorption in the blood, which in turn, helps sustain energy and lower the chances of crash. As for brain health, protein is made up of amino acids, which, in short, can have a positive effect on your dopamine levels, which can improve a low mood.

6. Choose oily fish 2-3 times a week

Oily fish is a great source of omega 3. Examples include salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines. Omega 3 fatty acids are healthy unsaturated fats and are important for brain function, health and development ( as well as your joints and heart health). Try to have this at least 2-3 times a week. If you aren’t a fan of fish or are vegetarian or vegan, try having plant-based sources such as chia or flaxseed or walnuts. Just 1 tablespoon of chia seed daily, seven days a week is roughly equivalent to 2-3 portions of oily fish. You can also consider an omega 3 supplement.

7. Hydrate to concentrate

Too many people forget to hydrate. Not drinking enough or drinking mostly caffeinated drinks can leave you more dehydrated than hydrated, leading to poor concentration levels, lower productivity, headaches, a bad mood and even constipation – which doesn’t leave anyone feeling happy or energetic! In order to improve or maintain a good mental performance and productivity level, focus on hydration. Keep a large bottle of water on your desk or even make yourself a little check chart to remind you to drink more fluids. As a rule of thumb, check out the colour of your pee when you go to the bathroom. If it’s bright and yellow, drink more non-caffeinated fluids (ideally water) and if its pale to clear, then you are drinking enough!

8. Caution the caffeine

Caffeine is a worldwide socially accepted stimulant mostly consumed to give yourself a boost! And yes, it has the power to do that – but within reason. As a stimulant, it is helpful in providing some feeling on energy, giving you a boost and increasing productivity and mental health. But drink too much of it, can it can have quite the opposite effect. Too much caffeine can make you feel irritable and anxious, give you insomnia (which will affect your mental health) and can actually reduce your ability to focus – not the desired effect you were probably looking for?

My advice – limit your caffeine (from coffee or tea) to 2-3 cups a day. Some studies even suggest having your first cup a little later in the morning as to not rely on it to “wake you up”. Having a healthy breakfast and some water will do a better job than caffeine in the morning.

9. Pick wholegrain, low GI carb options

In order to avoid highs and lows in energy and concentration, pick high fibre, wholegrain and low GI carbohydrate options. These foods slow the release of sugar (glucose) into the blood stream, so you don’t land up having a quick energy surge followed by a large crash shortly after. Having the sugar go slower into your blood stream helps a slower more steady release of energy or fuel to your brain, which in turn will help with better focus. These foods include wholegrain (brown, multigrain, seeded) bread or pasta, brown or wild rice, high fibre cereals and legumes (beans, lentils etc.).

10. Load up on fruit and veg

Fruit and veg are not only healthy due to their high levels of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, but also their fibre and water content. Not only are these important for our physical health but mental health too, especially vitamin B’s and vitamin D. Aim to have a minimum of 5 fruit and veg daily, but ideally more. Try to incorporate different types and colours into your daily intake (2).

The Final Word

Healthy and regular eating is a vital step in helping you to improve your mental health, performance and productivity, and it should not be put on the backseat. Set some time aside (it can be on the weekend) to plan out your meals and decide on what healthy foods you can include on a daily basis to help you concentrate better. Remember to limit caffeine and stay well hydrated, aim for balanced meals including lots of fibre and low GI foods, fruit and veg, some protein (making sure to include some omega 3 rich foods) and avoiding junk food wherever and whenever you can.