You know how you eat a heavy meal and immediately want to take a nap afterward? Right. We’ve been there. Avoiding a bowl of pasta for lunch is a no-brainer if you’re trying to stay alert (i.e., not fall asleep at your desk), but sometimes a time crunch makes us reach for the carbs just to fill us up and tide us over. Unfortunately, as you may have learned from personal experience (we certainly have), this doesn’t always end well. According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, when people eat a food containing carbohydrates, the digestive system breaks down the digestible parts into sugar, which enters the blood. (You can read more about what it means when our blood sugar levels rise on Harvard’s site. Spoiler: It’s not good.)
Thankfully, there is help in the form of foods that can actually improve productivity, focus, and overall work output. Yay. Ahead, we turn to one of our go-to registered dietitians, Dara Godfrey, for a few pointers on the foods we should eat for maximum productivity—and the one afternoon pick-me-up to avoid.
It’s Not Just What You Eat; It’s When You Eat It
Raise your hand if you’ve made a bad decision when you’re hungry. This editor is guilty. But Godfrey tells us the key to avoiding this moment is reaching for an afternoon snack before the afternoon hits. Wait too long and you will make unhealthy choices. “Once your blood sugar has dropped too low, it’s often game over,” she warns. “It’s very difficult to recuperate without craving something super carbohydrate-rich, which drives your sugars to the other end of the spectrum. This might give you a lot of energy at the outset but wreak havoc on your insulin later, not to mention disrupt other hormone levels. “The sugar lows and highs can become cyclical and make it hard to focus long-term,” she adds.
Keep This Snack at Your Desk
If you’re anything like me, you require a snack drawer full of healthy treats in order to keep those unhealthy choices at bay. It helps to be prepared and reduce the temptation. So what is this holy grail of snacks that will keep you focused and fill you up? Dara suggests keeping nuts at your desk. Especially walnuts which have the added benefit of omega-3, which is good fuel for your brain.
Include a Source of Protein in Your Pick-me-up
The key to feeling fuller for longer is protein, and Godfrey urges every one of us (especially those of us who are desk bound) to keep an artillery of protein-fueled snacks at our stations. She recommends nuts, nut butter, hard-boiled eggs, and yogurt. For lunch, she says salmon and blueberries are good sources of energy. Just make sure to avoid the afternoon coffee or smoothie pick-me-up. Wait, what? More on that below.
Don’t Replace Your Afternoon Snack With Coffee
Skip the afternoon coffee? We can hear your collective gasps from here. “Yes, caffeine does energize you, but it’s not a great idea in the afternoon as a substitute for eating a protein combined with a carb snack,” says Godfrey. While caffeine can improve mental clarity, the caveat is that it affects people differently, making some drinkers extra agitated or anxious—it’s why this editor gave it up completely. “Everyone has a unique response,” she says. “Having coffee too late in the day can also interfere with sleep, so it’s better to keep it a morning habit with breakfast or before a workout.” Noted: no afternoon lattes.