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How and Why Does Food Influence Our Bodies and Productivity?

Article October 5, 2020


Why do we want to sleep after a heavy meal? What does caffeine do to the human brain? Ján Staš from the Czech Nutrition Consultants Alliance offers to these questions and more.

“On the level of individuals, there are no universal nutrition recommendations. The more we dive into each individual’s specifics, the more we weaken the general term,” Staš alerts us.

“We all are not only the managers of our branches or positions at work, but also the managers of our own health, energy, and performance,” he adds. Staš is the secretary of the Czech Nutrition Consultants Alliance and one of its committee members.

Ján Staš, Czech Nutrition Consultants Alliance

Why do we feel sleepy after lunch? Is it influenced by what we’ve eaten?

There are several possible reasons. First, it can be caused by a hearty lunch. A lunch rich in saccharides will lead to what’s called “post-prandial hyperglycemia” and sedation, because the parasympathetic nervous system – the system responsible for rest and relaxation – is then dominant in the body.

The dynamics of our circadian rhythms can be another possible mechanism here. During both the day and the night, every human body goes through certain periods when its metabolism and individual systems are more activated or suppressed.

So an afternoon drop in productivity is actually entirely natural?

Yes, and meanwhile any effort to maintain the highest possible performance throughout the whole day makes no sense in terms of the human body’s physiology. In the optimum case, the human body does not work linearly, but rather in various rhythms and cycles, and one needs to plan their subjective performance peaks based on these.

And so afternoon power naps are very popular with many people, as are walks, relaxation, and brief entertainment. Managers, too, should definitely understand these natural rules better and plan for important strategic meetings accordingly, so that their workmates won’t “hibernate” during them.

Why do we feel tired after a heavy meal? What specifically is happening in the human body?

In simple terms, we can state that while every foodstuff gives us some energy, at the same time it also naturally takes it for its own metabolization. In expert terms, we call this phenomenon the thermic effect of food.

An important role in the whole process is played by the given food’s “nutritional density,” that is, the presence of various vitamins, minerals, enzymes, or live probiotic bacteria that support the entire metabolization of the food ingested. In other words, the more nutrition-poor a food is, that is, the more it lacks these nutrients, the more we can feel tired after a meal, and paradoxically the faster we can get hungry due to their absence. 

So what would you recommend?

One ideal solution could be to seek out types of foods – and above all their amounts – after whose consumption you’ll feel subjectively pleasantly satiated, and yet energized and motivated toward further activities. In harmony with the mentioned daily (circadian) rhythms, I would thus recommend prioritizing quality over quantity at lunch, and instead of monstrous “lunchtime restaurant deals” I would instead turn my eyes towards the quality of ingredients.

Examples could include a light fish with vegetables, sushi, fresh cheeses, or the various grain-based salads that are available. However, any ability to specify any further here depends strongly on individual possibilities and preferences – not only in the taste aspect, but also in metabolic (enzymatic, microbial, etc.), psycho-social (going to lunch alone/with friends), and financial aspects.



Can coffee help with the afternoon drop in energy as a “kickstarter”?

Definitely so. Coffee is not only an excellent stimulant (albeit not for everyone), but also a very complex drink containing a number of healthy substances. For roughly the last 10 years, scientific studies confirming very broad health benefits from the consumption of high-quality coffee (including anti-oxidizing, detoxifying, neuroprotective, oncoprotective, and anti-diabetic effects) have been rapidly multiplying.

But one necessary condition here is that this be high-quality, and especially well-roasted, well-prepared coffee, ideally in the form of espresso or some type of drip coffee (e.g. V60). Cheap instant coffees or strongly roasted coffees, and pre-ground coffees prepared as “cowboy coffee,” will tend to have more of a negative effect on your health.

Is the caffeine ingested the main source of the energization from coffee?

Yes, it’s mainly about caffeine – that is, a substance from the alkaloid group that energizes the human organism while also occupying the receptors for the perception of fatigue in a special way. So not only are you stimulated, but you also are worse at perceiving that you’re tired. So it’s a matter of two different (not separate) mechanisms, which under certain circumstances can work against each other – that is, being very physically stimulated while also very mentally tired. 

You also need to keep in mind that caffeine, or more precisely coffee, don’t actually bring any energy into the body! On the contrary, it potentiates a higher metabolic turnover and dynamics for the organism in various ways, and later on this will necessarily have to be compensated for with a greater degree of rest.

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How is it with the claim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Is that really so?
Breakfast definitely isn’t necessarily the most important meal of the day. It is above all the first meal of the day, and it can be just as important as lunch, dinner, or, say, a snack before a workout. It strongly depends on the context and the purpose that nutrition is meant to serve.

In terms of the optimal functioning of our daily rhythms, however, breakfast, along with dinner, proves itself to be an important part of our nourishment. Just as our organism follows along with the light, or more precisely the time of day, food as well amounts to a sort of “pacemaker” on whose basis the activity of our digestion, excretions, hormonal and immune system, etc., configure themselves.

It is thus very desirable that both our breakfasts and dinners, or other first meals of the day, come – if possible – at roughly the same time each day, or at least on most days of the week. 

So you tend towards being a “breakfast fanatic?”

Breakfast is definitely a ritual based on which an individual organizes themselves and thereby helps, among other things, to maintain their mental integrity. If there is no truly compelling reason otherwise (and “I’m running late” definitely isn’t one), I would generally recommend to everyone to set aside time at this time of day and eat. Here again, the quality of ingredients should be given preference over quantity.

Within many studies, people who have breakfast are shown to have a lower energy intake over the day and a lower affinity towards raiding the fridge in the evening/night, and thus naturally exhibit a better state of health and more satisfaction.

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