Do you start your day at the office with coffee? And reach for more coffee and perhaps a couple of bananas throughout the day to keep up your energy levels and alertness? Is this common for your team too?

We often take this as normal behaviour and habits at work. However, it’s worth asking, is this ‘habit’ really going to help you and your team perform at your best?

When you look around, do you see colleagues looking tired and lacking vitality? Are they easily irritated? Or are they running on adrenaline and wired?

That was probably me 20 years ago in a middle management position of a large UK corporation that you will all know. Looking back I realise that I was not as productive as I could have been because of my behaviours around nutrition in the workplace, even though I was more conscious than most of what I was eating and drinking at home. Somehow at work, the knowledge that I was slowly building began to disappear.

Increasingly, today you’ll often find fruit in the workplace, sometimes gifted by directors as they will often think that fruit is much healthier and will create a feel good factor in the office. After all, who doesn’t like a banana? Fruit is healthy right? It will make everyone feel better and perhaps increase their performance?

Bananas and coffee? Will this combination make you more productive at work? The truth is ‘no’ it won’t. It might give a short term boost, yet that boost might quickly become a ‘dip’…

Your food choices can make a substantial difference in how you perform at work. You may wonder why: some days your energy is high yet others it is low; why some days you sail through tasks and yet others you don’t; why some days you are easily irritated, and some days your ability to concentrate is low.

Food choices impact mental health

What we choose to eat can have an impact on whether we:

  • Think clearly.
  • Keep energy high all day every day.
  • Stay calm and perform well under pressure.
  • Cope well in stressful situations.
  • Have drive and vitality.
  • Generate ideas and solutions easily.

Are bananas your first choice as a healthy snack? You might want to re-think that.

It’s understandable someone might think this as it is high in fibre, rich in potassium and sports people choose to eat them. However a banana is a carbohydrate and typically contains 12g of sugar. The WHO (World Health Organisation) advises a maximum of 50g sugar a day. Therefore awareness around sugar sources is very important as a consideration when it comes to productivity at work.

Every carbohydrate food is digested to simple sugars and if not carefully controlled can play havoc with your blood glucose levels. The starchy carbohydrates (the most sugar rich) also include potatoes, rice, pasta, bread and crackers.

It is your ability to maintain blood sugar control that is critical to your productivity at work. Fluctuating sugars have a direct impact on your concentration, irritability, coping with stress, decision-making ability, energy levels and even sleep.

Your choices at every meal and snack dictate what happens to glucose levels; either helping to keep glucose stable or having a yo-yo effect. Therefore bananas – and much fruit – is often a poor choice of food for productivity in the work place.

This may be even more relevant to your company if you have teams who are working shifts across a 24 hour period when the body may be out of sync with its natural circadian rhythms.

Let’s start at the beginning of the day and consider breakfast choices: A cooked breakfast of bacon and eggs or granola? A typical granola has 15g sugar per portion and 7g protein whilst bacon and eggs has zero sugar and 24g protein. Now I’m not promoting bacon on a daily basis (and it is a processed food) but this example explains why we can be misled by clever marketing. Granola is not necessarily a healthier choice.

Protein is essential to help you perform well at work. It helps to regulate blood sugar levels; it helps to keep you happy, calm and less irritable (through conversion to neurotransmitters like serotonin); it is important to your immunity (keeping you well and at work); it is vital to the performance of every bodily process (as enzymes).

How about lunchtime then? How about a jacket potato and cheese?

Be aware that a typical jacket potato contains 19 cubes of sugar (compared to a can of cola that contains 7 cubes). And the cheese (a protein source) is often a small amount grated onto the top. Instead choose a very small potato but with a more substantial protein filling served with a side salad.

What about an afternoon snack?

Thinking about the banana, it would not be my first choice but I would recommend a handful of plain unsalted nuts like walnuts. These contain “good” fats, protein and fibre.

Carrying this through to dinner – how about steak?

Steak has had a bad rap in recent years: it’s ‘high in saturated fat’ or ‘red meat causes colon cancer’ for example. But these headlines are misleading. A good quality steak is a dense protein food, high in iron with no sugar. We do need some fat for fat soluble vitamins (A, K, D). Fat can be used by the body as direct energy source. Fats are needed for brain function too. A little good quality steak in the diet is very different to a shop bought burger or sausage in its fat profile.

If you are an employer and you want to help your staff and your business to be more productive, then the foods you provide on your site can be critical to that. This comes down to what you provide for free, in a vending machine, in a communal kitchen space or even in an inhouse café.

While you cannot totally control what people eat at work, providing them with choices which you know will aid performance – and not sap it – is a benefit which can have long term implications for your business.

It also comes down to educating your staff around this. Every bite you eat can have an impact on performance in the following hours.

Consider carefully – are you wasting money on bananas when something else might be more beneficial?

If you have a staff member with diabetes, for example, they will already have a lot of knowledge around this. Their body has lost its ability to effectively deal with sugars and they are now managing that situation, some may even be able to reverse their symptoms to reduce medications if they take nutrition more seriously.

Regardless they will have to monitor every single thing they eat for fluctuating sugar levels – and they will be doing this in the workplace. Have you even paid attention to those team members? The chances are you will have staff members with Type 2 diabetes and even some with Type 1 diabetes. Perhaps these staff members, if they are willing, could become your nutrition ambassadors?

I’m passionate about fuelling leaders and managers to achieve optimum performance at work. Happier, calmer, more energised managers will help to create happier better performing teams.

And this carries through into home life. Rather than ending the day – or week- wiped out and grumpy, there is energy and vitality to really enjoy non-work time too.

Caroline Peyton
Nutritional Therapist & Naturopath at Peyton Principles | Website | + posts

Caroline Peyton of Peyton’s Principles is a qualified nutritional therapist and naturopath with clinics in Wiltshire, the Cotswolds and online. She has a specialism in gut health and is often asked to support teams and c-suite executives around nutrition and performance in the workplace. She runs retreats for women of all ages to help them consider nutrition in their every day lives, helping them with recipes and around small changes they can make on a daily basis to improve their wellbeing through nutrition. She is a regular media commentator offering hints and tips around all aspects of nutrition, wellbeing and how nutrition can help with all kinds of conditions including diabetes, menopause, IBS and many others.