How workplace eating is ruining your productivity – and what to do about it

A return to the office could mean a return to bad eating habits; here's how to stay healthy and boost your performance

Productivity Pick-Me-Ups
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Prone to productivity slumps during the day? It's probably down to your workplace eating habits, and as most of us gradually migrate back to the office, now's the time to start thinking about what you consume at your desk and how it can be stopping you getting stuff done.

Just Eat for Business recently conducted a Productivity Pick-Me-Ups study in conjunction with nutrition experts to discover where we're going wrong with our workplace food, and what we should be eating instead. And while we're all pretty much aware that a box of Krispy Kremes will inevitably result in a serious slump an hour or so later as you nod off at your desk, there are plenty more harmless-looking snacks that can hit your productivity just as hard.

Nutritional no-nos

Productivity Pick-Me-Ups

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That healthy-looking breakfast you grabbed on the way into work? It may not be quite as good for you as you might think. Some of the worst foods for causing lethargy and poor mental health are highly- and ultra-processed foods, and those with added sugar and artificial sweeteners. And guess what? That breakfast cereal could easily fall into those categories and leave you needing an extra cup of coffee to boost your energy levels.

And that brings us to another red flag: caffeine. "Caffeine can be an excellent cognitive enhancer," says Dr. Craig Duncan, Human Performance Strategist at PIA. "However, it should not be used as a band-aid for poor sleep. A coffee after lunch, in the morning and mid-afternoon can enhance performance - but try not to have caffeine after 3-4pm as it can and will harm sleep."

It even turns out that a salad from a high street chain for lunch might not be as good for you as you think. According to Dr. Uma Naidoo, a board-certified psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and nutrition specialist, they come with their own dangers. "Unfortunately," she says, "most of these restaurants use highly processed vegetable oils and added sugars for their dressings which are inflammatory and quite harmful for your mental health. So what seems to be a healthier choice may not be."

For Dr. Naidoo, eating an anti-inflammatory diet is a key part of maintaining energy levels. "Low-grade inflammation flips off a metabolic switch in the chemical pathway that produces energy," she says. "The result is not only lower energy but an impact on insulin sensitivity and an increase in toxic free radicals that damage brain tissue."

How to eat more healthily

Productivity Pick-Me-Ups

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She recommends a diet rich in colourful, non starchy vegetables that add polyphenols, which fight inflammation, stabilise your insulin levels and nurture your brain, gut microbiome and overall body. Polyphenol-rich foods include cauliflower, carrots, red pepper and cabbage, and you'll be delighted to note that dark chocolate's on the list too. She also recommends a constant supply of omega-3-fatty acids for your mental health; the likes of extra virgin olive oil, olives, avocadoes, chia seeds, hazelnuts, almonds and macadamias will keep your brain happy.

Dr Naidoo suggests that it's partly up to employers to help their staff eat healthily during the working day – as well as being in their own best interests. "By supporting employees with healthy food choices, including lunch breaks, and even perhaps offering some healthy fresh snacks, employers will see the economic value in return," she points out. "They will have an energetic, committed, strong and mentally fit community working for their company. Instead of biscuits and chips, having fresh fruit, crudite, hummus, plain mixed nuts and plain yogurt (top with frozen berries and some nuts and cinnamon) are better options."

Want to know more? You can read all the findings of Just Eat for Business's Productivity Pick-Me-Ups study here.

Jim McCauley

Jim is a freelance writer who has been covering tech, games, design and more for magazines, websites and brands over many years.