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Does it really matter what I eat at work?

How food impacts our mood and mental energy

If you have a car that takes premium unleaded and you put Coke in the tank, how do you think that will turn out for you? The results will be a good lesson in consequences.

We experience the consequences of the fuel we put in our gut on a daily basis. As noted in the April 22 Thrive article Five Strategies will Unlock Your Mental Clarity and Creativity at Work, there is a notable correlation between what we eat and how we think. This article goes into greater detail on the impact of food on our energy and mental wellbeing.

I’m in a great place to comment on this because I just ran a life strategy design retreat in March where we had daily wine tastings and chocolate every night before bed. When it came time to talk gut health on day three, in a haze of wine and chocolate overdose I realized a major failure in my retreat plan: soul care is not an excuse to overdose on good things.

Neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf writes in Think and Eat Yourself Smart, “75-98 % of current mental, physical, emotional and behavioral illnesses and issues come from our thought life.” She explains in the book how the gastrointestinal tract responds to our emotions and vice versa. What we eat impacts the hard-wired structure of our brain.

Dr. Leaf is not prescriptive when it comes to what to eat. She emphasizes the importance of understanding how your body responds to food. One person might respond adversely to wheat and another might have a reaction to corn. It may be true that chocolate is a vitamin, but let’s get the facts straight about how food impacts our energy and mental wellness…and design some strategies to make food work for us.

Strategy#1: Let them eat cake!

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that cake is for  special occasions, like birthdays. If you are wondering whether to have cake at the office party, ask your amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for our emotions. (More from Dr. Leaf in this video.) Any foods that break down quickly in your body will flood the brain with sugar and impact impulsiveness and reactivity. That means one slice of cake could lead to two, and 20 minutes later you will be staring at your computer monitor struggling with how to spell amygdala. You can have your cake and eat it too, but have it later in the day or a small slice after dinner…because what will put you to sleep in the afternoon can also keep you awake at night!

Strategy #2: Enjoy eating with friends.

There is an old proverb that says it’s better to eat dry bread alone than a feast in a houseful of strife. Food is meant to be prepared with love and enjoyed with friends. Take some time to slow down when you eat, leave your mobile device behind and sit face to face with a human. In fact, our family has a no-phones-at-the-table policy. Table time is a great place to connect and create community – a lost art in the fast food era. Greatist posted how meals with friends (or family you like) increases happiness and alleviates depression.

Strategy #3: Yes, wine is good for your heart, but…

A Mayo Clinic study shows that red wine does have some benefit to the heart, but that all alcohol has some benefit in reducing blood clots and raising healthy (HDL) cholesterol. One way to keep the libations in check is to merge this with Strategy #2 – consume your wine or favorite drink with a friend and make it about slowing down and having conversation.

Strategy #4: Coffee is like wine.

The American Heart Association lists a number of benefits from coffee, besides the energy boost. It lowers risk of Type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease and is an excellent source of antioxidants. These benefits presume we’re talking about coffee that’s not loaded with dairy and sugar, which essentially reverse any positive benefits.  On a daily basis, we drink really good black coffee. On special occasions, you might see me with whipped cream in my cup, but this is not a daily habit.

Strategy #5: Enjoy your food.

My 17-year-old daughter was able to visit her sister in England for ten days last year. She can’t remember the difference between Parliament and the Tower of London, but she can recount in detail every meal she had. US News & World Report lists reasons why it’s good for you to enjoy your food.

The easiest way to make food work for your mood is to remember that food is fuel. Start tracking how you feel after every meal and you will have a good baseline for maximizing your energy every day.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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