"I would eat better, but" ... Optimise Nutrition in a Busy Life
I work long hours / I hate cooking / I am a busy parent / I have a million hobbies / I am not sure what ‘eating better’ means / it is expensive / [insert other reason].
The food we eat fuels our daily activities and builds our bodies for today and the future – so, unsurprisingly, to perform to our best we need our nutrition to be on point.
This post is to show that it is not hard to improve your nutrition, whoever you are. It may not be able to take you to ‘optimal’ nutrition, but all movement in the right direction is progress!
I will show you practical strategies, backed by science, that you can implement even in a busy life and that will not break the bank.
So, you wake up. Get ready. How many of you eat breakfast? Either at home or at the office? I am going to try and convince you why eating something for breakfast is important for anyone who needs to keep focussed and concentrated all day.
Most cells in our body want to use glucose as their primary source of energy. In particular the brain. So, our bodies try to maintain our blood sugar levels within a narrow range that means a constant supply of glucose can be provided to all the cells of the body. When we are in this range, we have sustained energy. We can do work, we can play.
If our blood sugar gets lower than this range, we are fatigued, we can’t concentrate, we are hungry. Energy is low. You may not always consciously register this. Particularly if you are in the habit of running on empty.
In the morning, when we haven’t eaten since the evening before, our body struggles to keep blood sugar levels high enough. Our body is breaking down the glycogen and fat (and muscles, if we are really in energy deficit) to keep the blood sugar up. So, if you need to be mentally alert and focussed, you want to take this stress off your body (particularly if it is already fighting fatigue, a cold, work induced stress etc). You need to eat! Okay, so assuming I have convinced you all (if there were skeptics) that breakfast is good. What to eat?
In terms of sustained energy, not all foods are created equal!! The main rule. Don’t eat something that is essentially all sugar. Why? Sugar is sugar. It does not need to be digested, it is already sugar. So it moves rapidly into the blood. Blood sugar levels spike – high and fast. Yep this gives you an energy surge. But the body keeps blood sugar within a range because high blood sugar is dangerous. So the body reacts quickly and aggressively to strip the excess sugar from the blood. In its haste, we overshoot. Blood sugar levels crash below the ideal range. You feel an energy crash … you get hungry quickly, and moreover crave the food that will quickly raise blood sugar and increase your energy. i.e. more sugar. You're on a blood sugar roller coaster, and it's hard to get off it. So – choose foods that also contains a mix of starchy carbohydrates, proteins and fats, with fibre. This gives you a steady release of blood sugar over time … giving you sustained energy across the morning.
Common challenges – you don’t have time, or you don’t like eating first thing. A coffee with full fat milk plus a banana will do. Or a handful of nuts with berries. Takes two minutes. And you can eat them on the go.
Quite often, this means coffee!! But as well as coffee, think water!
Water in your body is like the oil in a car. It helps everything work properly – from helping carry things in the blood, to lubricating joints, removing waste, being the environment for your body’s chemical reactions … the list goes on!
We know extreme dehydration can be fatal, but even mild dehydration negatively impacts a person’s mood, energy levels and mental function. Research has shown that women have difficulty concentrating and suffer fatigue, and men experience a decline in mood and mental ability (ability to reason, learning and short term memory). This happens with just 1.5% dehydration; given that you don’t feel thirsty until you are 1-2% dehydrated you can see how often many of us are likely to suffer this … and also how important it is to avoid, when you need your full focus and ability to work effectively with your colleagues in the pressure of an audit.
And as if that wasn’t enough – just a 2-3% fall in hydration leads to blood thickening, putting a strain on the heart and cardiovascular system as it has to pump harder to push the same blood volume around the body.
So, how much should you drink? 1ml / kcal you burn. But much easier than this … is your pee clear or very pale? If not, drink more! Keep a large bottle close by your desk / sink / sofa / bed at home – keep it topped up with water, and keep sipping regularly through the day. Every office and home has a water supply, so there really is no excuse!!
Lunch time!! Awesome. Proper refuel time. Time to give those blood sugar levels a sustained boost once again. And time to get your legs moving as you walk to the kitchen, canteen, supermarket or cafe!!
What to eat? So, we know from when we were speaking about breakfast that you want a combo of proteins, fats and carbohydrates to help maintain sustained energy. Awesome. But let’s think about something else … your gut brain.
‘Gut instinct’, ‘I feel it in my gut’, ‘gut wrenching’. We have known instinctively for centuries what science is now proving – there is a close connection between our gut and our brain. The Journal of Neuroscience – one of the top journals publishing research on the brain and nervous system – has called this new understanding a ‘paradigm shift’ of enormous magnitude that upsets hundreds of years of neuroscience.
In short, our guts house a whole ecosystem of microbes and it transpires we depend on these not only for digestion, but also for weight control, fighting disease, inflammation and stress and anxiety.
So, what do we mean by ‘a broken gut’? And how does a broken gut lead to a broken brain? The details and breadth are still being uncovered, but in broad terms what current research appears to indicate is:
1. A broken gut occurs when the mix of microbes in our gut gets out of balance. This appears to be driven typically by a combination of poor diet, lifestyle and medical reasons
2. We evolved over millions of years with our friendly bacteria … so it is unsurprising that they seem to function best on the whole foods that we have eaten for the majority of this time … as opposed to a bunch of chemicals thrown together in a food processing plant … i.e. the processed foods we have only really started eating in the last half century.
3. If we consistently give our bacteria the 'wrong' food they make us pay, not because they have a grudge against us but because they’ll die back and be replaced by other – much less friendly – bacteria that seem to thrive on refined carbs, i.e. processed sugars. 4. Hey presto… our gut is broken and we feel like total crap! The bad bacteria produce chemical by products that are toxic to us. And without enough friendly microbes, the food we eat isn’t broken down properly
5. As a result, the gut lining becomes inflamed and porous. So called ‘leaky gut’.
6. Bacterial by products and undigested proteins from food pass into our bloodstream, where they don’t belong. Some of these may pass across the blood-brain barrier and impact our brain’s delicate neurochemistry.
7. Furthermore, 90% of our body’s serotonin (the ‘happy hormone’) is made by the good bacteria … so when we lose these, we also lose a major source of our happy hormone.
Combined result: brain function is impaired, and conditions including anxiety / stress result. And in a somewhat vicious cycle – stress and anxiety itself seems to play back to the gut and further disrupt the microbes. So if you are leasing a stressful life, have recently had a course of antibiotics, and have been consuming high levels of processed food, you are at risk from some degree of ‘broken gut’.
So, what can you do?
Eat unprocessed food where possible; if you are buying on the go choose cafes where sandwiches, pasta and salads are made fresh, rather than the packaged supermarket variety.
Look at food labels – generally, the longer the list of ingredients, the greater the likelihood it is a chemical shit storm! Particularly where you don’t recognise half the ingredient names!
Eat bacteria – NOT food that is not meant to be mouldy!! But fermented foods that contain good bacteria. And eat them with fats. Because the challenge is how you get the good bacteria to the gut without destruction? When eaten within high fat it provides some protection from the gastric acid and bile salts. So – full fat Greek yoghurt, soft aged cheeses, miso with your sushi etc.
Okay, you ate a lunch to look after your gut and provide sustained energy. Great. But the stress has really kicked in this afternoon. The day has run away. All you have done is answer emails / your child is screaming / you have a to do list the length of the country / your car has broken down … Do you crave sugar? There is a scientific reason!
Stress causes the hormone cortisol and adrenaline to flood your body, which drive an increase in blood sugar. In cavemen this was an essential response to stress … you have heard of ‘fight or flight’ … adrenaline and cortisol drove up blood sugar to give the energy for fight or flight. However, in an office, it is less helpful. We just still sit and work, not using the excess glucose now flooding our body. So, our body reacts in the same way it would a high sugar meal. It brings the blood sugar crashing down … and we get an energy crash. And then the body craves what is going to restore blood sugar levels the fastest. A sugary meal!
Poor sleep can also trigger craving for sugary foods, as you seek to combat your fatigue with foods that your body knows provide instant energy.
So, you can see how it is very easy to end up on a blood sugar rollercoaster that is going to leave you with inconsistent energy levels, and impact your performance.
So, how can you address it? When you get this mid-afternoon crash apply just a few minutes of discipline and it will pay off for the rest of the day. Do not just get a sugary snack!!
Awesome afternoon snacks combine protein, fats and carbs just like any other meal. Think hummus and veg sticks, or fruit, yoghurt and nuts, or chicken on rye bread with avocado. Avocado, almonds and dark chocolate are great to incorporate in this snack – they all contain high levels of magnesium, which is nature’s ‘chill pill’, helping relax the muscles of the body.
Now, dinnertime. This is your last big feed up before morning. What do you do if you don’t have much time to cook, or eat out, or get a takeaway?
When eating out or getting takeout there are very few places you can’t make ‘better’ choices. And at night you want your focus really on the protein and fats to keep you full until morning. Protein – meat, fish or soy. Fats – usually what it is cooked in! And use it as the opportunity to get your micronutrients and fibre in from veg – make choices that mean you get 2-3 handfuls worth. Sides, or a £1 salad bowl from the supermarket, to go alongside your meal.
If you are someone who is never sure whether you will be at home for dinner, and so never have food at home because there is no point buying fresh as you don’t know when you will be there to eat it … buy frozen meat, fish, and veg, and have vacuum packed rice and couscous in the cupboard! It is just as nutritious. And lasts months. Buy stuff that has no added ingredients and just bung in the oven or boiling water until cooked! These are also easy options for those who have little time – they require zero preparation and whilst they are cooking, you can go and unpack your bag from the day, shower and unwind!
For those on little time, other great options are eggs. Turn into an omelette in less than 5 minutes, throwing in any and all veg you have in the house. Pre-cooked meat (look for the sugar free options) and a bowl of salad from the supermarket is another less than 5 minute nutritious meal. Pick up a sourdough loaf whilst you are at the supermarket for added carbs!
If you get late night munchies after dinner, apply the same principles as your afternoon snack – choose something with a mix of protein, fats and carbs to sustain you through a restful sleep!!
In summary …
And that is that! I hope this whistlestop tour has started to show you how with every meal you can make choices that benefit your health. This doesn’t take all the fun out of eating and drinking. Go to nice restaurants, eat what you enjoy, have ice cream and drink wine. Just, for the sake of your health and your career, don’t live off sugar rich nutrient poor foods every day – you have one body, treat it well!!