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How to Eat to Fuel Your Performance

A Q&A with Isabel Maples, Registered dietician nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Thrive Global: For many people, a lot of their daily eating happens at work. How do you recommend eating for optimal performance?

Isabel Maples: It often depends on the person—the same amount of food can leave some people feeling bogged down and others feeling hungry. So part of the strategy is making sure you eat the right amount of food for you. And you need to eat regularly, like eating something every three to five hours. Remember that snacks matter. Many of us get about 25 percent of our daily calories from snacks, so they should contribute to your overall nutrition—they aren’t just ‘extras.’ Instead of reaching for a donut or a cookie, if you want something sweet, choose a snack like chocolate milk, which has protein and carbohydrates.

TG: Is there an ideal mix of nutrients we should aim for in our snacks and meals to keep our energy up throughout the day?

IM: I recommend combining protein, carbs and healthy fats. It’s the combination of those three that can really sustain your energy, because carbohydrates give you a quick energy boost. But if all you have is carbohydrates, your blood sugar will keep going up and down. You’ll feel like you need to keep eating because you’re getting that low-energy blood sugar crash. That’s what happens when your snacks are high in sugar, like candy. You need carbs, because they help fuel your brain and without them you can start to feel foggy. But if you eat your carbs with protein, which is digested more slowly, the energy kicks in in a slower, more sustained way. Same thing with fat—it’ll extend your sense of fullness and how slowly things get digested so you get more sustained energy. In terms of snacks, you could do something like cheese with whole grain crackers, yogurt with fruit, or half of a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread.

TG: What are the biggest challenges people face when they try to eat healthier, and what advice do you have to get over them?

IM: The planning it takes can definitely be an issue. The easiest way to do it is to sit down once a week and come up with your eating plan for that week. For example, if snacks at work are a downfall for you, plan a week’s worth of healthy snacks — like baby carrots and hummus — and bring enough for the whole week.

People often feel like healthy eating costs too much as well. But let’s tackle that price issue. Healthy eating does not have to cost more. In fact, it could cost you less, and here’s what I mean by that: food doesn’t have to be fresh to be considered healthy. We want to avoid processed foods, but it’s okay if vegetables are canned or fruits are frozen. Those things can still be healthy choices.

TG: What advice do you have for someone who wants to make healthy eating a priority but they feel overwhelmed by all of the nutrition information out there or they’re not sure where to start?

IM: One thing I often recommend is to start by adding more healthy foods instead of taking unhealthy foods away — tt tends to be an easier change for people. Focus on things you don’t get enough of and add more in those areas. Most people are too low on fruits, vegetables, dairy and whole grains. So you could get more of those things by snacking on yogurt, whole wheat bread, crackers, and fruits and vegetables.

TG: So you’re crowding out the less healthy stuff instead of eliminating it.

IM: Exactly. Because proactively picking healthy items is easier than actively avoiding. And people can do that no matter what type of eater they are.

TG: Can you explain more about eating types?

IM: I’ve found that people fall into three patterns with eating at work. One, they’re squirrels and they stash away enough food to make it through the work day. Two, they’re gophers and they go out and gather food. They go to a vending machine or to the corner store or the drive-thru. Or they’re vultures who just eat whatever’s around the office—somebody brings donuts or somebody brings in their birthday cake or somebody splurges for pizza or somebody’s got candy on their desk. There are advantages and disadvantages to each one, but it’s important to figure out which category you fall into and adjust your habits from there.

TG: At Thrive, we recommend microsteps, small science-based ways to improve your life, as a strategy to make progress on big goals like healthy eating. What small actions would you recommend to someone who wants to start on the path to better nutrition?

IM: Simple: bring your own snacks to work and pack your own lunch once or twice a week. Most people want to eat better, but sometimes we put unrealistic expectations on ourselves to make a huge turnaround. You get big benefits from these little steps just like you do with more drastic changes.

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