Unable to stay awake at work? Maybe it’s what you’re eating

Eating too much in the evening but not enough during the day can sap your energy

A high fat lunch  makes the digestive system work hard.  As a result, we find it hard to stay awake during the afternoon. Photograph: iStock

A high fat lunch makes the digestive system work hard. As a result, we find it hard to stay awake during the afternoon. Photograph: iStock

 

One of the main reasons people come to see nutritionist and health coach Alva O’Sullivan is because they’re constantly tired. The stresses of modern living undoubtedly play their part, but O’Sullivan says that feeling totally exhausted by the end of the working week is not normal.

And in her experience one of the main culprits is food – both what we eat and when.

“When I tweak people’s diets, the single biggest reaction I get is delight at how much more energy they have and how much better they feel in themselves. Food affects both your physical and mental health,” O’Sullivan says.

“It comes down to fuelling the body with good food choices and keeping it nourished and hydrated throughout the working day. For most people that means from around 7am until 7pm. During that time, you require about 70 per cent of your daily calorie intake. Yet a lot of people will come home at 7pm and get stuck into a high carbs dinner followed by a sedentary evening and wonder why they don’t feel great.”

O’Sullivan says that, with so much going on in people’s lives, food often slips down the priority list. As a result, we end up making bad decisions because we’re hungry.

Eating well doesn’t just happen. You have to plan for it as you do with other aspects of your life

“I’m not a believer in the self-denial school of nutrition. It should be about what you can eat not what you can’t, but eating well doesn’t just happen. You have to plan for it as you do with other aspects of your life,” she says.

“Don’t skip meals, include protein with every meal to stay feeling fuller for longer and have a healthy mid-afternoon snack: fruit, oatcakes with nut butter, a small pot of natural yogurt. Otherwise it’s just too easy to reach for the first thing you see when you get home because you’re so hungry or to end up hitting the vending machine at 4pm because your energy has slumped.”

Ron Friedman is a psychologist and the author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Friedman says “food has a direct impact on our cognitive performance, which is why a poor decision at lunch can derail an entire afternoon.”

Friedman points out that while most of what we eat is converted into glucose by our bodies, not all foods are processed at the same rate. A high-fat lunch (such as a BLT or cheeseburger) makes the digestive system work hard. In so doing it reduces oxygen flow to the brain. As a result, we find it hard to stay awake during an afternoon meeting.   

O’Sullivan regularly works in corporate settings, advising companies that provide food for employees about what should be on the menu.

Corporates are becoming more aware of the role food plays in employee wellbeing. Photograph: iStock
Corporates are becoming more aware of the role food plays in employee wellbeing. Photograph: iStock

“Working adults spend more of their waking hours in work than anywhere else, so supporting health and nutrition makes sense, not least because people are more productive and creative if they have plenty of energy,” she says.

“I see a big difference in attitude between the multinationals and tech companies employing mainly young people and more traditional companies with a mixed-age workforce. The younger people are so much more food conscious and you’re preaching to the converted. It’s a much harder sell to older workers.

“I’ve worked with Airbnb and their in-house catering is completely focused on healthy eating and served in smaller bowls and plates to make people mindful of portion size.

“In my experience, most staff canteens have a healthy option but people don’t take it. It’s the chips and pizza that sell and you can’t blame the caterers as they have to make money too.”

O’Sullivan says corporates are becoming more aware of the role food plays in employee wellbeing. The founders of the Hapi Food Company, Conor Coyne and Colm Rowan, are making the most of it. They set up their business, which employs six people, three years ago to offer healthy convenience meals based on fresh natural ingredients. Initially they focused on supplying individuals and gyms but the corporate side of their business has now begun to take off. Their customers include Yapstone, Talech, Giant Animation and Bank of Ireland.      

Nutrition and taste had to be key and the ready-to-eat factor was also important

“We make everything from scratch and offer main meals, soups, healthy snacks and smoothies,” Coyne says. “We do daily deliveries to offices in Dublin and are also doing some corporate events. For example, some of the tech companies have a budget to cater an employee breakfast once a month. Our menus change every day and run for six weeks and then we change them completely.”

Coyne studied engineering at university while Rowan studied business and computing. The Hapi Food Company was born when they went on a health kick following graduation.

“We both agreed that nutrition and taste had to be key and the ready-to-eat factor was also important as we knew from our own experience that, while we wanted to eat well, we were often pressed for time. We’re filling the niche for food that is fast but healthy.

“Over the last 18 months we’ve noticed that employee wellness has become a much bigger talking point,” Coyne adds. “It seems to be playing into the whole thing around staff retention, especially in the tech companies.

“People are looking for incentives apart from money to move, and what they’re being offered on the wellbeing side has become increasingly important.”

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