Do You Nourish or Do You Fuel?

Originally written for LawTalk Magazine, published 13 August 2015fit and healthy

These days, food advertising is everywhere and much of it targeting the ‘health and fitness’ market focuses on ‘fuelling’ your body – think Powerade, Up and Go type drinks or the average protein drink/bar, ‘recovery’ drink or meal replacement.

There’s nothing wrong with these foods necessarily, they can be quite tasty, are easy to find and will give you energy to get through your day especially when you’re busy and didn’t get around to organising anything else.

But don’t fall into thinking you can eat these frequently and believe you’re nourishing your body with them. When it comes down to it, they are processed foods and while they may contain added nutrients that are ‘good for you’, it’s not the way nature made them.

There is no argument the food we eat needs to provide enough energy to carry us through everything we do in our day but it should also give us the nutrients we need to function efficiently. The fact is, increasingly people are chronically undernourished from lack of variety and nutrient poor food choices but still obese from a calorie dense, nutrient deficient diet. It’s an oxymoron.

We should remember that the food we eat literally makes the cells in our body – your hair, skin and nails, your muscles and organs, and your hormones. It also influences our brain function.

If you eat high quality, varied food, you’ll be giving yourself the best opportunity to stay healthy and strong and able to function to the best of your ability – mentally and physically. That is, you should be able to maintain focus and concentration, think clearly and control energy levels and moods.

This is not intended to be a piece against the use of supplements or convenience food products – there’s lots of reasons to use them depending on individual goals and needs – nor am I advocating a strict paleo lifestyle but to be healthy, real food should always be the first choice over processed foods, protein powders or meal replacements.

Sticking to organic, unprocessed wholefood 100% of the time is unrealistic – let’s face it, no one can resist the odd chocolate bar or pizza all the time – but ensuring you’re eating well at least 80% of the time should be manageable with some organisation.

If you’re mostly eating a variety of foods that are minimally processed, the occasional ice cream or takeaway meal is not really a big deal, provided your definition of occasional is closer to once a week or once a fortnight, not once a day. There isn’t one right way of eating for everyone as we’re all individual and it depends on your lifestyle and preferences so it can take some time to find what works best for you.

Here are some points to take into account:

  • Are you eating a variety of foods, or do you eat the same things day to day and week to week?
  • What can you do to add more variety?
  • Are you mostly eating unprocessed wholefoods?
  • Do you drink the equivalent of 1/30th of your weight (in kg) in water (in litres) each day – ie. if you weigh 60kg – 2litres, if you weigh 90kg – 3litres?
  • Do you have lots of vegetables each day and 1 or 2 pieces of fruit?
  • Do you include fats, proteins and carbohydrates in all your meals or are your meals consistently dominated by one of these?
  • What foods make you feel more alert and focused and what foods make you feel more tired, bloated and mentally sluggish?
  • Do you have cravings for certain foods?

By paying attention to how you’re feeling throughout the day you’ll (hopefully) notice patterns related to what you’ve eaten or the time of day you eat. Some small changes to your eating habits may help to clear your afternoon mental fog, curb sweet cravings and maintain more stable moods – all enabling you to work more efficiently and be more productive.

Remember that strict rules around food and what to eat is not useful and will only lead to failure, so instead consider some general guidelines based around flexible eating that focuses on nourishing your body and giving it what it needs to operate well.

The following are suggestions to try and you may find that some work better for you than others.

  • Spend some time planning your food at the beginning of the week. It will avoid draining your willpower and you’ll be able to use your energy for more constructive tasks. Willpower is a limited resource which get used up as the day wears on – notice how easy it is to say no to a ‘treat’ in the morning compared to the afternoon.
  • Add a protein source to your breakfast to help stabilise energy levels throughout the day and circumvent the afternoon slump.
  • Limit caffeine to the mornings to allow improved sleep patterns to establish and reduce reliance on it in the afternoons.
  • Choose more balanced snacks, for example instead of a muffin/scone/savoury try roasted chickpeas, unsweetened yoghurt with fruit and nuts, vegetable sticks and hummus, corn thins with cottage cheese and tomato, rice crackers with salmon and avocado.
  • Make meals less carbohydrate dominant and include more fat and protein
  • Take your lunch to work to avoid the poor choices that come with being unorganised – dinner leftovers from the night before work well

As you start to incorporate these, pay attention to your energy, focus and productivity.