Mood Food: how what we eat affects our productivity

Hold the cakes and disconnect the coke machine. Replace the meeting biscuits with fruit, nuts and smoothies. What we eat has a big impact on our performance at work – from mental clarity, to energy, stamina and productivity, food governs how well our bodies and brains function. Food makes our mood was the message from a host of speakers at a recent (22 March) Footprint Forum event held at the London Stock Exchange sponsored by Partners In Purchasing, the strategic catering procurement consultancy.

Starting with the liquids debate, sportsman and broadcaster Matt Dawson MBE, best known for his role in the winning England 2003 rugby squad, argued that a 2 per cent reduction in hydration reduces concentration levels by between 10-25 per cent. “That’s why so many sports matches are lost in the last few minutes – and why we won the 2003 Rugby World Cup in the last few minutes because we were the fittest and most hydrated team,” said Dawson who went on to describe the team’s routine in the six weeks prior to the game which involved eating 7,000 calories a day in addition to hours of training. “A lot of people forget how vital hydration is. If you put yourself in a high performance environment, whether that be a sports field or a boardroom, if you’re not hydrated you’re going to lose the ability to make those key decisions under pressure,” added Dawson who is an ambassador for Sodexo and was the winner of Celebrity Masterchef 2006.

If water keeps your concentration high, then a diet high in fish (and the vitamin Omega 3) is crucial to that brain developing in the first place. In a fascinating talk Professor John Stein, emeritus Professor of Neuroscience and fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, explained the link between Omega 3, and other vitamins and minerals, and humans developing a social brain which can respond to social cues such as tone of voice, speech sounds and fleeting facial expressions. “Impaired development of the brain’s magnocellular cells, which Omega 3 supports, can cause dyslexia, Aspergers syndrome, and antisocial behaviours.” He made a direct link between the amount of fish people eat and their IQ, motor and social skills and ability to counteract depression. A diet rich in Omega 3 had been proved to reduce violence in young offenders, he said.

Stein, who is the older brother of TV chef and fish fanatic Rick Stein, argued that today’s diet is appalling with too much saturated fat and sugar which encourages obesity and heart disease. He called on the food service industry and facilities managers to provide more fish in the workplace or to encourage the taking of Omega 3 supplements to make up for the fish that we don’t eat.

Amanda Ursell, a nutritionist, Times journalist and regular contributor to the BBC then took the debate directly into the workplace arguing that “just as Napoleon believed an army marches on its stomach, the performance of a workforce depends on what they put into their stomachs”. Preempting the research from Vielife, she argued that a good diet reduces absenteeism; encourages presenteeism (ensuring that people are not only in the office but engaged with what they’re doing thereby increasing productivity); improves morale, motivation and company loyalty; and decreases company health insurance costs. More organisations are taking the issue seriously, she said, often when the CEO personally sees the benefits of a good diet and exercise to his performance and ability to handle stress and wants his staff to recognise the benefits too.

But she argued that too often nutrition programmes are a turn off: “It shouldn’t be about wholemeal carrots, stone ground eggs and free range bread. You don’t have to go overboard with nutrition, naughty is ok sometimes. Used judiciously caffeine can be good and help us to concentrate, for example.” This was a topic echoed later in the panel debate by Dr Sue Gatenby, nutrition director Europe at Pepsico International, which produces Walkers crisps and Pepsi. “there’s nothing wrong with a fizzy drink or a savoury snack – they are part of a healthy balanced diet.” The company has invested heavily in making products such as Walkers healthier by reducing saturated fat content by 80 per cent through using different oil. Gatenby hinted at a well-known assumption – sometimes something bad for you does you good.

Reporting on the results of some extensive Vielife research, Jessica Colling, product director at the firm said that employees with poor nutritional balance reported 21 per cent more sick-related absence and 11 per cent lower productivity than healthier colleagues. People with good nutrition report a 15 per cent higher mood score; 6 per cent higher job satisfaction and 28 per cent better stress management score. Meanwhile another Vielife research project showed that the most healthy quartile of the workforce is seven hours more productive a week than the least healthy quartile.

Echoing Stein, Colling said that the modern diet is appalling with Vielife research showing three in five people have a poor or “at risk” nutrition status. Only 18 per cent eat five or more fruit and veg a day and 90 per cent fail to eat six or more portions of fibre a day. “There is an increasing body of research that demonstrates the strong relationship between wellbeing and performance in the workplace. This is exciting, as it means there’s an opportunity for facilities professionals to make a difference, influence what people eat, make them healthier and improve the business bottom line.”

This was certainly the experience of Richard Neal, a director from Lancing Press, who during a panel debate explained the difference in his professional performance after he turned to a healthy lifestyle. Thanks to a low fat, sugar and carb diet, combined with the influence of a personal trainer and nutritionalist, he went from feeling that retirement wasn’t far off to being reenergised and further developing his businesses. Even more importantly he inspired his staff to follow his example. “I went from being tired and listless and almost ready to retire to being full of energy and ideas, rejuvenated and looking forward to the next 40 years,” he said.

This holistic approach is essential, said Vielife’s Colling, who urged the audience to try to change the way people live, not just improve their diet. “The four core pillars of health – stress, nutrition, sleep and activity – are all inter-related. If you eat better, you’ll have more energy, so will want to do more physical activity which helps you deal with stress better, and sleep better.”

And now is the perfect time for facilities managers to strike according to David Steel, group development chef at Lexington Catering who said that British people are becoming increasingly interested in food and its impact on wellbeing. But the problem remains time, or the lack of it, which is one of the main reasons why Lexington’s “Let’s Energise” range is mainly “grab & go” based to compete with other less healthy options available elsewhere.

“The convenience and value of many unhealthy foods are powerful arguments against healthy eating. The solution is to make healthy eating cheap and easy,” said Felicity Yardy, the juice master blender at smoothie firm Innocent, which also produces veg pots, describing their products as “good fast food”.

Pepsico’s Gatenby had a different solution: “Nutrition should be part of the national curriculum – home economics has all but disappeared. What makes our bodies tick is a fundamental learning experience and if we miss out on those lessons at home, then we need to get them at school.” Changing children’s mindsets towards food both through better quality school meals and education about food was referred to several times over the course of the audience debate.

The message is clear, concluded Diana Spellman. “A mind made sluggish by a high-carb lunch washed down with sugary drinks will make more mistakes, have lower output and less innovation. Facilities managers and those that supply them are in an unique position to make a positive contribution to a company’s fitness to compete.”