Before Andrea became a developer he was a chef. And as you will see, he's still pretty passionate about food. Here he shares his personal opinions about the importance of a good lunchtime meal.
We often underestimate the implications of our lunch break habits, and we tend to see it just as a necessary action with the sole scope of silencing our body’s craving for food.
In particular when we are busy and/or at work, eating is seen as a waste of time and usually, we feel the need to do something else while eating food. But whether we are at home or in the office, the lunch break can affect our mood and productivity in so many ways, that we shouldn’t sacrifice it to the gods of multitasking.
According to recent British studies, two-thirds of workers have less than 20 minutes break for lunch and a shocking 28% don’t take a minute to relax at all during an entire day. Only 29% will usually have a full hour break, but about a third of them eat at their desk and they often end up carrying out some office tasks instead of relaxing.
But unfortunately in modern times it’s not enough to just stay away from your desk to switch off and relax your brain, in fact, nearly all workers are spending most of their breaks checking personal emails and social networks. Yes, that includes me too…
It’s pretty intuitive that a longer break will be more beneficial than a shorter one, but there are a lot more implications related to the kind of food we eat and the way we spend our lunch break. We can group those aspects into two main topics, let’s have a closer look at them.
Where and how to spend your lunch break
Lazarus, stand up and walk.
One of the roots of many health problems which are typical of the modern society is the fact that we sit down for the vast majority of the day. The lunch break (and other breaks too) should be a good moment to stretch a bit and have a little walk.
You could go out to buy some food and come back to the office, or eat in a café/restaurant. But even just walking to the kitchen to prepare your meal and come back to eat, will be better than grabbing some munchies from your desk drawer.
Don’t let your brain get bored.
In addition to the general health benefits, by changing location you will also recharge your concentration and improve your mood. Many studies confirm that when we change the surrounding scenario, our brain is suddenly much more stimulated and our level of attention will rise in response to the new external inputs we are receiving.
This might seem just a minor thing, but if you pay attention to it, you will realise how much fresher you feel and how much more focused you are if you move somewhere else for a bit.
If you just eat it’s not a waste of time.
Yes, there are a lot of things that you can do while eating, and you don’t even need to be a multitasking wizard to do so. But just because you can, it doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to optimise your lunch break.
It is known that our digestion will suffer if we are distracted while eating, but there is more. If we just focus on our meal and try to empty our mind for a bit, we also relax our brain – almost as if we were to do a quick meditation session. And you might be surprised, but if we pay more attention to what we are eating, we usually feel more satisfied with our meal and our mood improves too.
Socialising is the key.
Among all the variables involved in your lunch break, socialising is probably as important as the food itself. We often underestimate it but it has a massive impact on the quality of our breaks and will give a boost to all the aspects we’ve discussed in the previous points.
Coming from a few years of freelancing at home, I can definitely confirm the huge benefits of having a chat with someone during your working day. Even if you just exchange a couple of words and smiles with someone else, you will immediately feel much more relaxed and in a better mood, your attention will increase and your brain will be more reactive. It will then be easier to concentrate and you will be much more productive and creative when you go back to work.
Whether you just go to the kitchen to prepare your lunch, or go out to buy food with some colleagues, or actually sit down to eat with other people, don’t forget to socialise with other fellow humans during your break. And even if you eat alone at your desk, at least have a quick chat with your neighbours!
Team spirit will also benefit from these good habits and will increase the general efficiency of the company in the long run too.
What to eat
What you eat is what you get.
I’m sure you have previously experienced the effects of different types of meals on your body and your productivity. In general, it’s very easy to feel a bit groggy after lunch, but skipping meals is even worse because when we’re hungry our body simply doesn’t work. What we choose to eat is going to affect our entire afternoon. We need energy but we need to stay awake. So what shall we do?
Most of what we eat is broken down and converted to glucose (when possible). That’s because it’s the fuel that our body needs in order to function. But each food type is processed at a different rate and provides different quantities of energy.
Some types of food like pasta, rice, bread and cereals, are converted very quickly and provide a burst of energy, which unfortunately doesn’t last for long and it’s often followed by a slump. Other meals rich in proteins and fats will take longer to convert and will provide a more spread out income of energy, but they will also require much more work from our digestive system, which results in less oxygen reaching the brain, causing a dramatic decrease in our abilities and attention.
Pretty much as always, the solution is in the middle, and a good strategy is to choose meals which include a balanced mix of different types of food: some quick glucose providers accompanied with other long lasting energy sources, taking care to don’t overload the digestive system.
In any case, the general rule is not to eat too much, even if you’re having healthy and light food (I admit, I am often failing on this point…). Then you can always integrate with a (healthy) snack in the afternoon to get a second intake of energy.
Avoid the glucose trap.
If it is glucose that we need, then why don’t we just go for sugary food? The problem is that our body doesn’t want an overload of glucose, but it rather wants a constant stream of energy which is just enough to run the current tasks.
If you eat something which is processed very quickly and provides a big amount of sugar, you will surely get a big hit of energy at first, but the bad news is that your body will go into panic mode and will release a big dose of insulin to quickly get rid of any extra glucose, which is still wandering within your blood.
So the bottom line is: sugar is a lie.
And no, you can’t just eat small amounts of sweets scattered throughout the day, because that will only push your body to produce more and more insulin, which in the end will always demolish all the sugar that you put in. The only trick here is to avoid the glucose trap and prevent the release of insulin by eating food which won’t overload the system.
Don’t let your hungry self decide.
One of the reasons why we tend to make poor food choices is the fact that we are usually making food decisions at our lowest level of energy and self-control. When we go for lunch we are often very hungry and our mind is not able to rationalise. At that point, junk food can look more appetising and it is usually the easiest and quickest option too.
The best way to avoid this problem is to plan in advance what you are going to eat. This can be done by bringing food from home, but would also work if you just decide in advance what you are going to buy for lunch.
Healthy food should be the easiest option.
As it happens for nearly everything in life, the easiest and more appealing option is usually not the best thing to choose for your lunch break. But the good news is that you would probably enjoy healthy food as well, if you just had it handy.
Although healthy food looks less appetising to many of us, the truth is that fruit and vegetables will actually make you feel better and happier after lunch. That’s because they are packed with nutrients which stimulate the release of dopamine and also provide antioxidants. This leads to increased motivation and engagement, as well as better mood and concentration.
But obviously it’s not easy to change our biased perception of food, and the knowledge of what I previously said is probably not enough to resist temptation. What we need is a strategy which will make healthy eating the easiest and quickest option available. Then the positive effects will slowly convince us and convert our habits.
Wrapping it up
The above information might sound unfamiliar and difficult to put into action, but in reality it’s quite easy to get the most out of your lunch break. You can just start following a few of these best practices and you will already see the benefits!
- Try to change location and stretch a bit when you take a break.
- Don’t run other tasks while you’re eating, and in particular switch off from work related actions.
- Pack your drawer with nuts, fruits and cereal bars. And avoid the sugar trap.
- Bring cleverly balanced meals from home, or at least plan in advance what you will buy for lunch.
- Socialise. Socialise. Socialise!
I love to cook and I always bring my lunch from home, but I understand that for many it can feel like a boring and difficult task. Actually, it doesn’t require much effort nor skills, but rather just some smart organisation. Here are my two cents about how to organise your lunch meals.
- avoid preserved/packed industrial food. It is usually filled with chemicals and other ingredients that will have a bad effect on your productivity (and your health in general). Freshly packed meals from groceries are fine if you choose something light.
- sandwiches are your secret weapon. If you buy a few ingredients at the beginning of the week, then with a minimum effort you can prepare a different fresh sandwich every night. And you get to load it as you wish!
- salads are very quick to make too, and if you keep the moist ingredients separated from the dry ones, you can prepare it the day before and it will taste as good as if you made it fresh.
- when you are cooking for dinner, you can easily double the doses and make an extra portion for the office.
- If you are more experienced in the kitchen, the best option is to cook a big pot of your favourite food once in a while and freeze it in separate portions. Then all you have to do is to defrost one packet overnight and enjoy it in the office with zero additional effort.
And the last recommendation is: wherever and whatever you eat, don’t forget to enjoy your food!