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7 harmful eating habits that cripple your productivity (and what to do about it)

Skipping lunch to get ahead of your work is not giving you the productive advantage you expect, after all. Putting in longer hours doesn’t equal more productivity, and putting in longer hours while eating poorly is a surefire way to get a lot less done.

In our busy world with endless tasks to complete, the way we eat has dramatically deteriorated. Our eating habits have disappeared from our concerns. Cheap, unhealthy meals and snacks on-the-go have become the norm.

This disconnect from our food has worse effects than weight-gain and heart-related diseases. Giving our bodies a nutrient depleted supply of food paired with poor eating habits is one of the main factors that alter productivity, energy levels, focus, attention, concentration, working memory, learning, creativity and problem-solving.

These are 7 ways you may be sabotaging your productivity, and how you can get rid of them to stay on top of your game all day long:

1. Skipping breakfast when you are hungry

There’s evidence [] that having breakfast is beneficial for cognitive and physical performance because it activates the frontal, premotor and visual cortex areas of the brain. But if are a long-term breakfast skipper, don’t fret.

A 2013 study [] showed the effects of skipping breakfast can be either beneficial, detrimental, or have no effect whatsoever, depending on the kind of population observed. For adults who normally skip breakfast, skipping it has a positive effect on cognition. For adults who normally eat breakfast, having a high-fat breakfast boosts cognitive processes. In other words, if you’re used to eating breakfast, don’t skip it, but if you’ve been used to skipping it, doing so won’t harm you.

The real problem comes when you skip breakfast even if you’re hungry. This will make you feel less energetic and you won’t produce leptin (the satiety hormone). When you’ve eaten enough, the hormone leptin is released and it promotes plasticity in the hippocampus, which is associated with long-term memory and learning []. Staying hungry decreases your productivity by impairing your memory and learning abilities.

What to do: Set up overnight oats, prep the ingredients for a healthy smoothie, or prep leftovers from dinner the night before to have a quick and nutritious breakfast the next morning. Include a healthy fat as well, such as avocado, coconut oil, nuts, grass-fed butter or olive oil to boost brain power.

2. Snacking on processed foods

You should snack to keep a continuous amount of glucose in your bloodstream, which is necessary to maintain energy levels []. But snacking on cookies, donuts, potato chips, marshmallows or anything with refined carbs in it will create short bursts of energy followed by sudden energy crashes.

This happens because refined foods don’t have enough fiber or protein to regulate the release of glucose to the bloodstream; therefore it’s taken all at once instead of steadily throughout a long period. When you’re working on something important, the last thing you want is to get sleepy or sluggish.

According to a 2011 study [], unhealthy snacking is associated with more accidents and minor injuries at work.

What to do: Swap those cheap snacks with whole-wheat crackers with tuna, a mix of fruits, a mix of nuts with raisins, oatmeal, apple with peanut butter, yogurt with granola, whole-wheat bread with cheese and tomato, or healthy energy balls.

3. Not snacking at all

Having three large meals without snacking in between can make your energy fluctuate more throughout the day. Smalls snacks with a low glycemic index (GI) [] keep your glucose levels constant and prevent energy swings. It has been studied [] that snacking improves cognitive function, particularly memory and learning.

What to do: Pack easy, low glycemic snacks to have during breaks, such as apples, pears, nuts, yogurt or hummus with pita or tortillas. It is recommended to have one snack in the morning and one in the afternoon.

4. Lunching junk food

Indulging on a burger and fries combo for lunch is not helping your productivity either. Along with the weight-gain effects, a traditional western diet (high sugar and high harmful fat) has been associated [] with a smaller hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for memory and spatial navigation. This means that eating unhealthy can lead to a lower learning ability and spatial orientation, as well as impaired mood.

High consumption of trans fat has also been linked [] to a reduction of DHA in the brain, a fatty acid vital for learning.

What to do: To stay clear of added sugar and trans fat, pack your own healthy lunch, like a chicken sandwich with whole-wheat bread, a salad, wraps, or leftover pasta from dinner, or find restaurants that offer healthy alternatives near your workplace if that’s an option.

5. Overeating at lunch

Overeating, especially on high-caloric foods, has been linked [] to more food cravings, hunger, increased sadness, and lower relaxation and satisfaction. This means that overeating doesn’t let your body adjust properly to the new energy increase and creates mood and appetite swings.

What to do: Eat smaller portions of high to medium calorie foods, either by preparing your own lunch or measuring yourself when eating out with smaller meals. Lunch salads more often, as it’s been proven [] that low-energy-dense foods [] (low-calorie foods), such as vegetables and fruits, contribute to satiety and energy management even in large portions.

6. Not drinking enough liquids

Dehydration happens when more than 2% of body water is lost. If you’re not drinking enough liquids during your work day, you are sabotaging your attention, focus, mood, and memory.

Dehydration has been shown [] to lead to a bad mood, increased perception of tasks difficulty, headache symptoms, and lower concentration.

What to do: Remember that it’s not about drinking plain water only, the fluids from your food and beverages help maintain proper hydration. Keep a bottle of water on your desk, drink herbal teas along with your snacks, lunch soups more often, eat fruits with high water content such as watermelon, cantaloupe and pineapple, and avoid sugary juices and sodas, as they will create sugar crashes.

7. Eating at your desk

Gluing yourself to the desk seems like a fail-proof way of getting everything done, right? Well, it actually lowers your productivity. Taking regular breaks from a task can significantly improve focus and concentration [], as it allows your brain to recharge and prevent burnout.

A recent study [] shows that workers who take lunchtime walks, instead of sitting at their desks, tend to be more enthusiastic and relaxed. A good mood is key to staying productive.

What to do: First, you need to let go of the worry that compels you to stay at your desk. Take lunch anywhere else, around nature if possible. Go lunch with a coworker, lunch at the cafeteria, or go to a nearby coffee shop. The more you walk during your break the more recharged you’ll be.

It’s easy to forget how important our eating habits are when it comes to our performance. When we’re working we are just thinking about getting things done. But if you pay attention to how you’re eating, you can skyrocket your productivity and perform at your best.

Eating breakfast, not staying hungry, not eating junk food or processed snacks, not overeating, staying hydrated, eating low-glycemic snacks, having low-calorie lunches, and taking a lunch break will boost your brain power and ensure your well-being.

Next time you’re about to drop everything to squeeze in a couple more of extra hours of work, make sure you’ve nourished your brain and body first.

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