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To prevent brain fog at work, watch what (and how) you eat

A Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist says a mindful approach to meals can improve health and mental acuity.

To prevent brain fog at work, watch what (and how) you eat
[Images: yotrak/iStock; hamza ishqaidif/iStock]
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I’m a nutritional psychiatrist, and to me, the phrase “you are what you eat” takes on a whole new meaning. As I’ve written in Fast Company, what we eat indelibly impacts our cognitive performance and work efficiency. But I encourage everyone to take diet mindfulness one step further, examining how we eat.

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The concept of mindfulness, or nonjudgmental awareness, ties in seamlessly with one of my pillars of nutritional psychiatry: body intelligence—a body awareness version of IQ. If we take moments to listen to our bodies and minds through the process of eating our daily meals, we can develop a keen awareness of the elements of our diet which benefit us most. In doing so, we are empowered to consciously select those foods which best enable our focus, alertness, and productivity, while consuming delicious, brain-healthy nutrients, too.

The following nutritional psychiatry tips can help you avail of the many brain-boosting benefits of food for maximizing workplace productivity.

Eating to beat and prevent brain fog

Common triggers of post-meal brain fog include consuming foods high in simple carbohydrates (think processed and refined foods, which lead to crashes in blood sugar), a high caffeine intake, and unknown allergies or undiagnosed digestive conditions. Brain fog and unpleasant gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms after a gluten-containing meal may be a sign of celiac disease, a condition where the immune system mounts an attack on the digestive tract due to gluten. Even in those without celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity can also cause trouble, especially if you are experiencing a foggy mind, headaches, or body pains after eating gluten. Other GI troubles, such as undiagnosed small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease may also be culprits of this discomfort.

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Avoidance of these triggers may provide immense relief. Consider adjusting meal composition by decreasing simple carbs and including more protein- and fiber-rich foods to optimize nutrients that keep blood sugar levels steady. Both protein and fiber are known to improve glycemic control. And, as our gut microbes thrive on fiber, a fiber-rich meal means extra love for your stomach. Think about adding veggies, berries, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, lentils, and healthy lower-glycemic whole grains to your diet. You can only obtain fiber from plant sources and not from seafood, poultry, dairy, or meat.

I believe in “adding in the good,” because as we start to feel an improvement, we also start to let go of habits which don’t serve us. Maximizing whole, nutrient-dense foods and decreasing ultra-processed food intake is a vital element in eating to boost productivity and beating brain fog. Avoiding inflammation-inducing foods may, in fact, lead to better energy after eating a meal; research indicates that blocking inflammatory markers contributes to a reduction in fatigue after eating. And the benefits of consuming a variety of phytonutrient-rich fruits and veggies are boundless. One of the pillars I share is the 80/20 rule, which allows for nutritional discipline with some flexibility. Focus 80 percent of the diet on whole, real foods with plenty of fiber, healthy fats as well as quality, well-sourced clean protein. The remaining 20 percent allows for leeway to take life as it comes. We all need space in the diet for some food freedom to create the most sustainable lifestyle changes that will actually stick.

Eating mindfully also improves focus

With all the buzz surrounding mindfulness, it should come as no surprise that practicing mindfulness has also shown to benefit executive function and productivity. But mindfulness goes beyond traditional ideas of meditation: it is truly a shift in our approach to all things, one rooted in nonjudgmental present-moment awareness. The act of preparing food, as well as eating, is indeed its own mindfulness practice. It actually serves a dual purpose in this way by feeding the body in the immediate sense while strengthening our mental fortitude through the practice of mindfulness. I recently collaborated with Headspace on meditations centered around mindful eating.

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Meal planning maximizes time through the work week

Productivity takes planning. It also takes a great deal of self-awareness. Sugary snacks and high-caffeine drinks may feel like the only things that seem to raise your energy through the day, but remember that what goes up must come down. Prioritizing sleep and stress reduction might help you gain back that vital energy and no longer rely on these less-than-healthy options. And, to support your body’s vitality, planning nutrient-dense, easily prepared meals for the week saves time and ensures nourishing meals are ready in real-time.

Self-care, especially through our food, that helps us maximize our productivity.

Start the day right: If you like to write, consider affirmations or gratitudes to begin your day. If you like to move, consider a refreshing sequence of sun salutations. Or, if you like to sip peacefully, think of a steaming coffee, green tea, or a nourishing mug of golden milk.

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If you tend to wake up with a knot in your stomach, consider a mindfulness exercise or a quick run, jog, or treadmill session to ease that tension and release some endorphins. A prayer, a meditation, or a mindfulness exercise are also some good ideas

Stay hydrated and sip on some citrus or berry-flavored water throughout the day. This is a great source of hydration along with powerful antioxidants from the fruit.

Get up and move: Some ideas are to take a walk during your scheduled breaks, do some stretching exercises, spend some time in the sun to boost your vitamin D, or build in a yoga break or a short work out.

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Practicing breath work is also a powerful, science-backed way to help ease anxiety and feel more productive.

Sleep hygiene is also crucial to a productive head start. Eat an early dinner so your food has time to digest before you sleep. Avoid shopping at night and being under the artificial bright lights that keep you activated instead of preparing you for rest, and turn off your devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime to prepare for sleep.

A brain-healthier diet walks hand in hand with the constant practice of mindfulness. Where both independently are shown in research to boost workplace productivity, harnessing the strengths of both together have immense potential to unlock our very best at home, at school, and at work.

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Dr. Naidoo will host a workshop on the relationship between food and mood on September 27 the Fast Company Innovation Festival. To learn more about the event and to purchase tickets please visit the festival website