Food and productivity. A topic that isn’t discussed much, but that’s something we are going to change here at Asian Efficiency. We think it’s such an important topic because of the major role food plays in how productive you are. There is not a lot of information out there on this topic and that’s why we want to address it.
We’ll start by first introducing you to a book that specializes on this topic. In Thrive, Brendan Brazier educates you about how food and productivity are linked together, and how you can implement some of his core ideas to make you more effective and productive. I’ll outline some of the major concepts of the book here.
To give the book some context, it’s written by a professional Ironman triathlete who saw a need for performing better. Brendan Brazier discovered how certain foods helped him perform better and as a result created a diet around it (the Thrive diet).
You have to realize that a triathlon is a very intensive race. It consists of 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and a marathon run (26.2 miles) all done with no breaks in between. Obviously you need a lot of energy to do this (average time to finish a Ironman triathlon is 12 hours and 35 minutes!) and more importantly you need to efficiently use your energy.
You might be thinking, “Thanh, that’s nice and all but why do I need to know this? I’m not a professional athlete. I just sit behind my computer most of the day and just want to be more productive!” I hear you. I sit behind a screen most of the day too. In order to increase your productivity you need to understand how to manage your energy. The book The Power of Full Engagement (review) does a great job explaining it but it doesn’t delve into in the ins and out of how foods affect your energy level.
That’s where Thrive really shines. It explains in detail how the body works, how it processes food and how foods are linked with your productivity levels. Below is my summary of some of the concepts in the book.
In order to understand what role foods play in your productivity, you first have to understand what (nutritional) stress is and how this plays a role in your body (and your productivity).
Whenever you eat something, your body has to digest the food to turn it into energy. This process requires a lot of energy. In fact, your digestive system is one of the biggest energy suckers in your body.
Have you ever had a meal where you felt tired and sluggish after eating? Do you remember being super productive after that big meal? Of course not. This is a very common problem and a form of stress on the body that tempers your thinking and focus abilities.
What happens is when you eat poorly digestible foods it will cost your body a lot of energy to digest it. Blood is drawn to parts of the body where it is needed the most. Thus, when you eat a heavy meal, blood is drawn to the stomach to help the digestion process. When there is not enough blood in the head, that means not enough nutrients will go to the brain. In other words, heavy meals deprive your brain from glucose and oxygen it needs to function at its best.
Another form of stress is the lack of nutrients in your foods. Your body wants to extract all nutrients from food in the most efficient way. Whenever the body doesn’t get enough nutrients, it causes a stress response. Stress is a state where the body thinks it’s in danger and it will give you a temporary boost to ensure your survival.
Nutritional stress, as Brendan calls it, is the body’s response to food that is void of nutrition. What happens then is that your body’s adrenal glands will produce a stress hormone, cortisol, to make up for the lack of energy it got from digestion. It’s a temporary fix to give you some extra energy. The problem is, too much (pertained) cortisol in your body is not a good thing. It eats away muscle tissue, causes hormonal imbalance, makes sleeping more difficult, and it burns fuel inefficiently.
The problem with most foods today is that they cause this stress response because they contain very few nutrients. This is not just the case for junk food. Take white bread for example. It’s a staple in most Western diets and we wouldn’t consider this junk food. However, white bread contains very little nutrients and thus causes a stress response as your body tries to digest it.
Ideally you want to eat as much nutrient-dense food as possible so you avoid this stress response. When the body is stressed, it can’t be productive nor perform at its best. It’s that simple.
Cravings are another form of stress caused by poor diets. A craving is a uncontrollable thought that occupies a perceived need for something. Just think of the times you had a sweet tooth – that strong desire for something really sweet and sugary.
Imagine having that thought for a couple hours. Do you really think you can get work done when you’re constantly thinking about desserts? Of course not. You have this mental clutter that prevents you from focusing and being creative. When you have a craving, you simply can’t stop thinking about it. It’s like trying to study for an exam while the radio is playing at full blast on the background.
Interesting note: Stressed reversed is desserts.
The chemical serotonin plays an important role here. It’s found in the brain’s pituitary gland and it has a elevating effect on your mood. Basically, a regular release of serotonin in your body makes you feel good and as a result more productive.
As stress arises, your serotonin levels drop. Your body wants to address this as soon as possible and when you eat sugary foods it releases serotonin in the body. A craving is essentially your body’s way of saying “pass me some of that sugar” to restore your serotonin levels.
The best way to address cravings, and to prevent them, is by having a good diet. When stress goes up, so does your need for nutritious foods. Back in the cavemen days, that’s what fruits were for. Nowadays, it’s desserts but that puts you in a negative loop: it’s a short-term fix, the nutrition-less foods cause a stress response, and as a result you eat more sugary foods.
When you lower your stress (your cortisol levels go down) your body will naturally produce more serotonin. Less stress equals to more serotonin.
One of the best ways to reduce a lot of stress is by eating the right foods. That’s where the Thrive diet comes in.
The Thrive Diet
The Thrive diet is mainly about ensuring you eat nutritious foods that are high in net-gain (explained below) and don’t cost a lot of energy to digest. This diet was developed as the author saw a need to perform better at his triathlons.
Remember, this guy was swimming, running and cycling for his Ironman triathlons (without any breaks in between) and his body needed to be very efficient in the ways it conserved and used energy.
While training obviously plays an important role, so does the diet. The cornerstone idea behind the Thrive diet is that has a lot of high net-gain foods. What this means is that the foods are efficiently digested when taken in. When the body doesn’t have to expend a lot of energy digesting, it can conserve energy for other functions. When the body must expend energy to digest, assimilate and utilize the nutrients, the less energy you are left with. In other words, high net-gain foods eliminate excess work for the body and provide more energy.
Nowadays, most foods cost as much energy to digest as they contain. They are low in net-gain and need to be avoided as much as possible. This goes especially for processed foods and of course junk food.
So you might be wondering what some of the characteristics are of high net-gain foods. Here are some:
- raw or cooked at low temperature foods
- naturally alkaline-forming foods
- high in nutrients the body can use without having to convert them
As the subtitle of the book, The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life, might give away, it’s mostly (raw) vegan food. Does this mean you have to be vegan to be more productive?
The book contains a lot of useful information on how foods can make you more productive. You don’t have to be a (raw) vegan for that. Neither am I. Although I have adapted more raw vegan foods and I’ve eliminated meats from my diet, I wouldn’t consider myself vegan (I still love cooked foods and fried stuff once a while). I just took the best parts of the diet and applied it to my own diet.
The Thrive diet, or I should almost say lifestyle, has a lot of recipes that are quick and easy to make. The book goes more in depth on the diet and it’s very easy to follow. Just taking parts of it and incorporating it in my own life made me lose weight while at the same time made me more energized. Plus the foods taste great. It’s a win situation all around.
What I liked about the book is that the author doesn’t try to persuade you to become a vegan or stop eating meat. The points made throughout the book are done through the “productivity lens”. He just shows you the performance benefits of mostly vegan food and it’s really up to you to decide what you want to incorporate. If you just incorporate a couple things and you are more aware of what you eat, you’ll notice better energy levels, more times you’re focused and overall a more productive life.
For anyone who is interested in learning more about how foods and productivity are linked, Thrive is an excellent book. I remember reading it the first time, highlighting like a madmen and having my mind blown. It was the information I was looking for on the topic of food and productivity. What I’ve discussed here just scratches the surface, but get yourself a copy if you want to learn more about this topic.