The amazing connection between food and productivity

Takeaway: Your diet affects how much energy you have, which influences your productivity. As I found during my experiment to lower my body fat percentage to 10%, eating for energy is simple in theory, but difficult in practice. The best way I’ve found to eat for energy has been to make incremental improvements to eat fewer processed foods and eat slower.

Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes, 7s.

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Lowering my body fat percentage from 17% to 10%

Whenever I write about the connection between food and productivity, some people question how the two are even related. It’s a fair challenge: what you eat and how you work seem unconnected. Sure, eating well makes you healthy, but does it really impact your productivity?

I’d strongly argue that it does.

When it comes to writing for this site, I prefer to let my thoughts and ideas form in the back of my head, rather than cranking out articles immediately following every experiment and challenge. Odd as this might sound, more than a year later I’m still conducting research and collecting thoughts on my body composition experiment. I’d made it a goal to lower my body fat to 10%, down from 17%, while gaining 10 pounds of lean muscle mass.

I have an article cooking up about the muscle mass side of the experiment, which went extraordinarily well. By the end of my project I had gained not 10, but 15 pounds of lean muscle mass. That post will be coming at you in a couple of weeks.

The other side of the experiment—lowering my body fat from 17% to 10%—didn’t work out quite as well. Today, well past when my project ended, instead of hitting that elusive 10% mark, my body fat is hovering around 14%. While I talk about both sides of this experiment in detail in my book, I don’t want to be slimy and only point you toward the book to find out how this experiment ended. So I wrote this article to show how incredible the connection is between what you eat and how productive you are every day.

Just how connected the two are may surprise you.

The reason food is so incredible and addictive

Both of the productivity experiments I’ve failed at, at least so far, have involved food. With my experiment to eat only “soylent” for a week, I threw in the towel on day three—because I missed real food so badly.1 With my body composition experiment, I gained 15 pounds of muscle, but I didn’t even approach my body fat goal, even though I had a year to get there. While I was able to tackle other equally crazy experiments with relative ease, the overnight changes I tried to make in my body fat experiment were too drastic to stick with in the longer term.

Of course, this illustrates how difficult becoming more productive can be in practice. Setting goals and intentions is easy—we do that every New Years. But actually implementing a change is a lot more difficult. It’s no wonder 92% of us fail at the New Year’s resolutions we make. Productivity is all about how well you execute on your intentions—but this also makes productivity more of an art than a science. If the path to greater productivity were clear and easy, we’d all be as happy, rich, and successful as we want to be in our wildest dreams.

This gap between intention and action is especially present around what we eat—and it’s no wonder. Food is insanely addictive. Your brain releases as much dopamine, a main pleasure chemical in your brain, when you eat two cheeseburgers as when you orgasm.2 And we have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to crave salt, sugar, and fat. When we were scrounging for food in the wilderness as hunters and gatherers, our bodies evolved to reward us when we could find salty, sugary, and fatty foods. We need them to survive. Today, we have an overabundance of all three, and because what we crave hasn’t changed much, it’s unreasonably hard to eat healthy, despite our best intentions. Whenever we walk through the grocery store, drive home from work, attend a party, or grab dinner with a friend, we’re surrounded by food that the animal inside us can’t resist.

Our brains reward us for eating unhealthily, even though junk food is detrimental to our health, energy, and productivity. This is the productivity paradox of food: at the exact same time, our brain craves two opposing things. We want the stimulation and dopamine that junk food provides, but we also desire a six pack and a lasting amount of daily energy.

rollercoaster-1457392-639x1068The connection between food and productivity

Much like an oil refinery turns crude oil into gasoline that your car burns off as energy, when you eat food, your body converts that food into glucose, your brain’s main energy source. Relative to other parts of your body, the brain requires a ton of energy. From the moment you’re born to the moment you croak, your brain never stops working. Even while sleeping, your brain operates at full throttle, consolidating what you learned and experienced throughout the day into memory. Your brain cells consume double the amount of energy that other cells in your body consume. And what’s even more amazing is that while your brain makes up just 2-3% of your body mass, it burns 20% of the calories you eat.3

It also goes without saying that having lasting mental energy is crucial for your productivity. You’ve probably experienced a deep energy crash after eating a massive meal. This happens because eating a huge amount floods your brain with glucose—too much for it to handle. You’ve likely also experienced a big energy slump when you were hungry—when your brain didn’t have enough glucose remaining to burn off as mental energy.

This is how food and productivity are connected. Your digestive system is a magical black box that transforms food into energy. And energy is the fuel you burn over the course of the day to be productive. When you eat too much or too little, your energy suffers. When you eat just the right amount, you have a solid, consistent amount of energy to get through the day.

Of course, as I found over my body composition experiment, this is way easier said than done. More people crave a Big Mac than a big salad, because their brains want the salt, sugar, and fat. There’s sugar in the burger and in the bun—9 grams worth, the equivalent of popping four sugar cubes into your mouth. A Big Mac contains 29 grams of fat—comparable to eating two and half tablespoons of butter. And, not counting the equally-tasty fries you may order, the burger contains 970mg of salt—about half the amount of the salt doctors recommend you eat every day. It feels almost sacrilegious to think about a delicious Big Mac in this way, but the sad truth is most junk foods are one and the same. They contain some crazy combination of salt, sugar, and fat, which is detrimental to our health.

The thing about salty, sugary, and fatty foods and your productivity is that your body converts anything that’s processed into glucose incredibly fast. Any food that’s processed is essentially predigested for you by a machine, so your body takes less time to digest it after you eat it. (And what’s worse is that the opposite is often the case with greasy foods—your body takes about three days4 to fully digest a Big Mac because of how much trans fat it contains.) When you eat an apple or a chicken breast, which isn’t predigested for you, your body takes much longer to break the food down and releases its energy over an extended period of time. When you eat anything processed, the oil refinery in your stomach converts it into a heap of glucose that storms your brain all at once, which causes your energy levels to rollercoaster.

 

Eating for Energy

I observed this rollercoaster first-hand over the last couple years. My energy rose at the beginning of my body fat experiment. During a different experiment to live like a total slob for a week, my energy plummeted as the week dragged on. In an experiment to eat vegetarian for 60 days, I noticed no increase or decrease in my energy or productivity. This was because I continued to eat the same junk foods I always had—if not a bit more because I had removed all of the flavorful meat from my diet. As my body composition experiment went on, my energy slowly but steadily declined as I fell into the same bad habits I had before it started. Now, as I’ve begun to make incremental improvements to the way I eat, the amount of energy I have every day has steadily risen again. When you step back to make an effort to eat more deliberately and become more productive, the effect can be positively staggering.

Over the last year I’ve slowly uncovered something curious. There are really only two rules you have to follow to eat for energy. As I’ve discovered, they are:

  1. Eat absolutely nothing processed.
  2. Eat slower, so you don’t eat too much.

That’s it. The rules are simple, but living by them has given me an incredible amount of energy—more than I ever remember having.

The first rule—eating absolutely nothing processed—fits with what I’ve described already. Processed foods are usually already broken down for you, and they also contain a ridiculous amount of salt, sugar, and fat. Pretty much anything that’s processed—including food that contains unpronounceable ingredients, or is pulled apart or put together by a machine—will cause your energy levels to rollercoaster. Not all unprocessed foods are great for you, but as a general rule, your body releases the energy in unprocessed foods over a longer period of time because they have a lower glycemic index (GI) rating than the processed foods.

The second rule—eat slower—has a similar effect. Studies show that it takes your stomach about 15 minutes to tell your brain that it’s full.5 Eating slower gives your digestive system time to send the signal that you’ve eaten the right amount, so you can stop before you eat too much. This prevents a whole whack of glucose from racing to your brain at once.

If everyone followed these two rules—though I’m not a nutrition expert—I think obesity would vanish off the face of the planet, productivity around the world would soar, and most fast food joints would go out of business. This is also a pipe dream, and let’s be honest, life would suck without junk food. This is precisely what makes investing in your health and productivity so hard, and why it can be so difficult to bridge the gap between your intentions and actions. One side eventually has to win out when you crave two opposing things at the same time—such as having lots of energy or eating a Big Mac, or doing something productive with your time versus binge-watching Netflix. It’s not always easy to make the most rational decision in the moment, especially when your instinctual, animalistic brain takes over and demands that you eat something full of salt, sugar, or fat.

But as far as productivity is concerned, it’s worth all of the effort required to bridge that gap. Trust me on this one: I would have given up on eating for energy a long time ago if it didn’t have such a huge influence on how productive I was. Food is my weakness, and sad as this is to admit, I simply get too much pleasure out of food to eat better for only health or fitness reasons. But I value my productivity more than how much enjoyment I get out of food, which has made all the effort worthwhile.

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Chipping Away

As I write these words, more than a year after I started my body fat experiment, my body fat percentage is steadily declining. I’m still short of my original target of 10%, but I have more energy now than I’ve had in a long time.

Looking back, it’s almost comical how much I flubbed this side of the experiment. I did almost everything wrong. I failed to follow my own advice and tried to make massive, drastic changes to my habits—setting myself up for failure. Instead of rewarding myself when I ate well, I only punished myself when I didn’t reach my insane goals. I didn’t anticipate the obstacles that would inevitably come up. I even used working out as an excuse to eat poorly, when fat loss has more to do with nutrition than exercise (gaining muscle is the opposite). After each workout, the flood gates opened, and I used it as an excuse to eat whatever I wanted to.

This is not to say there is anything wrong with big goals, including my goal of lowering my body fat to 10%. But when I tried to make drastic changes to reach that goal, I fell flat on my face.

Over the course of this experiment I also uncovered a second simple truth: that making small, incremental improvements is one of the most underrated ways of changing your habits. I write about forming habits quite a bit on this site, because as far as productivity is concerned, habits are essential—good habits let you level up automatically to become more productive. But when it comes to changing the deeply ingrained habits you already have, making minor, incremental improvements becomes crucial.

Since the end of my project, I’ve made more and more incremental improvements to what and how I ate so I could eat for more energy. These changes weren’t big enough to intimidate me in the moment, but added up over time. As a few recent examples, I’ve started:

  • Putting spinach in my morning omelette, instead of meat and cheese.
  • Taking my coffee black, instead of with cream and sugar.
  • Eating vegetables and hummus, instead of chips during the hockey game.
  • Researching the healthiest takeout options in Ottawa to order from when my willpower is low.
  • Setting a timer to eat mindfully for five minutes, once a day.

These changes stuck, almost instantly. Like with regularly depositing money in an investment account, these small improvements compounded over time to produce spectacular results. Unlike with big changes, once my initial motivation to eat for energy died off, the changes didn’t intimidate me from sticking with them. Instead, the changes became more motivating as I saw the results add up over time. Best of all, particularly when I initially forced myself not to make too many incremental improvements, I wanted to make even more changes later on. This was the exact opposite feeling I had when I tried to completely overhaul my habits overnight.

Incremental improvements are small, but in practice, they’re profound. The smaller a change is, the less time and energy it takes to stick.

The greatest force in the universe

BalanceActMy body fat is currently around 14%, lower than it has been in years. For a 25 year-old male, that’s a great number; 10% body fat is an unreasonable number for most people, and usually isn’t worth pursuing. (I could even stop here if I didn’t get so much enjoyment out of challenging my limits.)

There’s a quote misattributed to Einstein that “compound interest is the greatest force in the universe.” Even though he didn’t say it, it’s one of my favorite quotes out there because of how true it rings, especially as far as productivity is concerned. What has worked better than anything else to get to this point, where I have more energy and less fat than I’ve had in years, has been making incremental changes to my habits, day after day, week after week, month after month.

In the age of quick productivity hacks, it’s easy to neglect one of the biggest contributors to how productive you are: how much energy you have. Energy is the fuel you burn over the course of the day to get work done, and food can cause your energy to rollercoaster. It’s worth taking the time to chip away at your eating habits so you can eat for energy.

It’s tough to eat for energy, but the connection between what you eat and how productive you are has never been more intimate, more important, or more profound.


  1. Worth mentioning: At a recent speaking engagement I gave a small cup of soylent to a team of 60 executives, and almost everyone disliked it. Most didn’t finish it. 

  2. Source: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/meth/body/methbrainnoflash.html 

  3. Source: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/thinking-hard-calories/ 

  4. Source: http://www.cosmopolitan.co.uk/entertainment/news/a38696/what-a-big-mac-does-to-your-body/ 

  5. Source: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/behavior.htm 

  • Anon

    Are you able to test and report on abstaining from caffeine, given its strong relation to the rollecoaster effect, for a set period? I’d love to see the results. :)

  • Gianni Cara

    Thanks for sharing your experiments with us, Chris. Really insightful!

    Like you said, changing old habits is tough. That’s probably why experiments with nutrition are so hard. The idea of incremental improvements should definitely be the best approach here.

    I got started with a low glycemic index breakfast. Two times a week in the beginning, and now there are weeks that I manage to not skip a single day.

    Can’t wait for your article about the muscle mass side of the experiment.
    Gianni

    • Thanks man! And nice! What does a typical breakfast look like for you?

      • Gianni Cara

        My favorite one is bran cereal with low-fat milk and banana. Sometimes I also go for eggs and mushrooms.

  • Shay

    You gotta wonder about the lack of productivity in college students and the amount of (really freaking salty) ramen they consume. On another note, that stuffed tiger in your photo made me chortle.

    • Oh man, that tiger was anything but stuffed.

      Photoshopped… maybe.. :-)

      • Shay

        In any case, it’s cute. It makes no sense, but it’s cute.

  • Srinath Narasimhan

    Good post Chris. Energy is one of the most important (and neglected) aspects when it comes to productivity. Mindful eating is so critical – loved that 5 minute routine everyday. Tiny habits indeed!

  • Ann Abbitz

    Very interesting! And you make some very valid points. And as my husband and I have both changed our eating habits, we applaud you on what you’ve accomplished…..it takes time, and is very hard, especially when you have kids and teens who want fast food a lot. And don’t knock the Netflix binge! For your information that’s how I lost my weight…..marathons on Netflix while riding my stationary bike…..you get so into it, the episode or two you watch make the time fly by. (And we have equipment at home, rather than go to a gym)….all of a sudden you’ve done 15 miles….not a bad deal. :) Keep up the work though, it is a lifelong commitment, but it really does pay off.

  • Justin Bradshaw

    Great post Chris. One thing I did to lose fat and gain muscle is use the protein powder to replace a meal. It took a while to get used to missing out on an actual meal, but with my job and other activities, I’ve been able to lose 80 lbs in almost a year. And for an extra boost, I eat a banana with my protein shake. Granted it doesn’t work for everyone, and you HAVE to replace a meal with it (I replaced lunch) and you MUST be active…..or else you’ll just gain more fat. But your post is a great insight to those who want to give it a shot.

    • Nice!! And thank you :-)

      Have you given Soylent a shot? It’s not for everyone, but serves a pretty great meal replacement if you’re in a pinch.

  • Trey Stevens

    Glad I found this site, and great article. I am already trying to make a change, before the New Year (great timing, huh?) and I agree with how difficult it is, but with my fiancee giving me support and encouragement, I think I’ll be able to get through it. I saw how the change of diet affected her and her family, so I wanted to change also. And I do see a lot of guys drinking the protein shakes and I wanna thank Justin for clarifying the way it needs to be taken. I’ll definitely give it a shot, have already dropped ANY alcohol beverages. Starting to slowly workout. We’ll see how it goes.

    • I’m a huge fan of making weekly resolutions as opposed to New Year ones—you’ll get through it for sure my friend :-)

  • Jason Smith

    Good piece here. I’ve started changing my eating habits also. As heart disease, diabetes, and a slew of other diseases run in my family on the male side, I figured I’d better start making a change before I get too much older. And I think it’s some crazy rule for college kids to eat all crazy and drink excessively, until we visit our parents. But make sure you find basically a support group, otherwise you’ll just fall back into your old habits. I’ve been clean eating for about 9 months now, energy is definitely up, productivity at work and school have increased, and a better overall feeling.

  • Christian

    Seeing this article (and comments) makes me want to make a change in my lifestyle. I’ve been told by family to do it, but you know us men are stubborn. Will be following your tips. See how it works for me.

  • Kristina Saar

    Thanks Chris! I’d love to hear more about the specific foods you ate, tips on how you went about planning your meals, and how much time it took you to plan and execute meals every day/week. Eating fewer processed foods is something I’d like to do more of, but in this day and age it’s nearly impossible to completely avoid them all together…Also, where did you personally draw the “processed food” line? Because chopped carrots, or any vegetables/fruit/etc., are technically processed food (that’s why they call it a food processor I guess).

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