This is what cutting out sugar and dairy and eating lots of fish and blueberries did to my productivity.
We know that there is a strong connection between your physical health and work performance. I thought I was doing pretty well. I consider myself a pretty healthy person: I try to run one half marathon a year, and exercise four or five times a week.
But like most people, I have my unhealthy habits. After using the sleep app Sleep Cycle for a few months, I’ve come to realize that my sleep quality and quantity is not as high as I would like it to be. While I try to eat a healthy diet of lean meat and vegetables about 70% of the time, I resort to junk food when I’m stressed and drink way too much coffee when I don’t get enough sleep. Somewhere in the process, my brain slows down and it becomes excruciating to think properly for what seems like a long stretch in the afternoon.
I’ve tried adopting “diets” for the sake of my brain and energy levels–but have largely failed due to its all-or-nothing approach. Diets like the Slow- Carb diet, the Ketogenic diet, Whole 30, Paleo, and the Bulletproof Diet all tout amazing brain function as a result, but I hated their restrictive nature. The fact that a slip-up can undo a week of discipline discouraged me from continuing with any of those eating plans for longer than two weeks.
But since I notice a difference in my sleep and clearheadedness when I’m more conscious of what I eat, I was determined to find a plan that works. A lot of Googling led me to the MIND diet, which was designed purely for greater cognitive function, as opposed to weight loss like most of the diets above. The best part of all? it’s not all or nothing, adopting parts of diet supposedly still gives you mental benefits. I was IN.
A DIET FOR THE BRAIN
The MIND diet, shortened from Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, was created by researchers at Rush University Medical Center and the Harvard School Of Public Health. A hybrid of the popular Mediterranean and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, the researchers studied eating patterns that reduces the risk Alzheimer’s disease, and conducted cognitive tests of 960 adults over the space of nine years, tracking their dietary habits.
The MIND diet encourages high consumption of 10 “brain-healthy” food groups such as green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, and fish. It limited (note: not banned) consumption of unhealthy food groups like red meats, butter and stick margarine, cheese, sweets, and processed foods. The findings, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, revealed that older adults who adhered strictly to the MIND diet faced a 53% lower risk of Alzheimer’s, and those who followed it moderately saw their risk lower by 35%.
I’m 28 years old, so Alzheimer’s isn’t a major concern for me just yet. But I figured that since the diet was designed to optimize cognitive function (and prevent cognitive decline), I thought that following the diet might do my brain and focus some good. There was only one way to find out–try it for a week and see what happens.
EMBRACING HIGHER GROCERY BILLS AND EATING THE SAME MEALS
The first thing I had to swallow on this diet was higher grocery bills. Salmon, extra-virgin olive oil, blueberries, and nuts are not cheap items, and these are staples on the MIND diet. I also bought three times as many leafy greens (kale and spinach) than I usually do because I wanted to incorporate more of them in my meals. That week, I was shopping for one because my husband was out of town, and I still ended up with a bill that was $20 more than what I’d usually pay when I shopped for two.
I also found myself eating almost the same meals every day. Breakfast would be two eggs, spinach, and salmon–with black coffee and a teaspoon of coconut oil. Lunch would be chicken breast salad with kale, spinach, edamame, and sautéed broccoli, with a handful of almonds. Dinner was lentil curry with vegetables and brown rice. The biggest change for me was cutting out dairy and refined sugar, so I substituted my usual afternoon snack of flavored greek yogurt and granola with unsweetened coconut cream “yogurt,” blueberries, and chia seeds. I replaced my milky iced coffee with peppermint green tea. The only time I deviated from this was when I ate out, which happened twice that week, where I devoured greasy carb-laden foods.
I WAS LESS HUNGRY THROUGHOUT THE DAY
Cheat meals aside, I was surprised at how quickly the effects kicked in. It only took me about two days to get past the sugar and dairy cravings, and on day one of the diet I fell asleep much quicker and naturally woke up earlier. I only experienced one afternoon crash that week, and I know that was because I’d come home later than I usually do that night, and I got less sleep than I would have liked.
I also noticed that I snacked less, even though my food portions weren’t that much bigger. As a result, food occupied less space in my brain, and I was able to focus for longer stretches of time. Even when unexpected tasks came up and my day was thrown a little bit out of balance, I was surprised at how quickly I was able to resume to my tasks straight away. Is it a placebo effect? I can’t say for sure, but it was definitely refreshing to be on a “diet” where “banned foods” weren’t constantly on my mind.
I FELT MORE MOTIVATED TO EAT FOR MY BRAIN THAN MY BODY
Unlike other diets, I wasn’t tempted to binge on terrible foods. I suspected that there are two reasons for this. One is that although they discouraged consumption of certain foods, the diet didn’t dictate that I had to cut out certain things. Second, I found eating for my brain much more motivating than eating for my body. Even in the age of body positivity, health, and wellness, I found it extremely difficult to disassociate diets from attaining an (often unrealistic) physical ideal. Somehow, greater productivity was a better motivator for me.
That said, I definitely felt a positive change in my body. My energy levels increased, and I was able to push through my half marathon training runs without looking at my fitness tracker every five minutes to see if I’d logged enough miles for the evening. I suspected that the elimination of refined sugar probably played a big part. As Fast Company‘s Michael Grothaus discovered when he cut out sugar from his diet, fruit began to taste like candy. My blueberries definitely tasted like sweets.
MODERATION IS MY HAPPY MEDIUM
It’s been two weeks since I started the diet, and for once, I’m actually thinking of sticking to this beyond the experiment. One of the things I really appreciated about this diet was the lack of restrictions. Staying away from dairy and refined sugar will continue to be a challenge, but knowing that I can indulge every once in a while makes this diet bearable. I’ll have to swallow the additional money in my grocery bills, but compared to other diets, the increase isn’t too steep.
I will admit that I’m still hesitant to commit to this long term. The fact that “experts” still can’t seem to agree on what constitutes healthy and unhealthy foods indicate that there’s a lot more we don’t know about how what we eat affect our bodies and our brains. But until research shows otherwise, I’ll probably continue to be a moderate follower of the MIND diet–for the sake of my productivity.
This article first appeared in www.fastcompany.com
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