As human beings, we are incredibly complex engines, made up of billions of cells. And for our engines – comprising body and mind – to work at their most effective level, we need the right fuel.
I’ve spent a lot of time researching the link between diet and success and know that if you eat well, it will have a direct, positive impact on not only your overall health, but also your levels of happiness, achievement and wealth. Only if you are healthy can you perform to the peak of your abilities and maximise your individual success, whether that’s in business, sport or life.
You are an athlete!
You may not have considered it, but many entrepreneurs are just like athletes, working long days, often travelling and always needing to perform at high levels. And, just like an athlete, you need to feed your body the right foods at the right times to power and propel you through your day.
Regular healthy eating habits have been proven, time and again, to help combat disease, increase life expectancy, raise energy levels, fire up your brain, improve your mood and boost your immune system. Conversely, if you make poor nutritional choices, a ‘bad’ diet will have a knock-on effect on your emotional state, your cognitive ability and, ultimately, your performance. And yet there is still not enough in the media directed specifically at entrepreneurs and business owners, to raise awareness of the serious risks that poor eating habits pose to their success.
A study of nearly 20,000 employees, carried out by Brigham Young University in 2012, found that those with an unhealthy diet were 66% more likely to report having a loss in productivity, as opposed to healthy eaters.
And, while there hasn’t been a huge amount of research to date into the specific links between what you eat and your brain function, scientists at Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology have found a connection between the enteric nervous system (ENS – the nerve cells that line your gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum) and the brain. “The ENS communicates back and forth with our big brain—with profound results”, says Jay Pasricha, M.D. “For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to bowel problems, such as IBS, constipation and stomach upset. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around.”
Essentially, what you eat and ask your digestive system to process can have a direct effect on your mental well being.
Before I move on to what food you should be eating, let’s take a look at the most important thing you need to put into your body: water.
The importance of hydration
Your body as a whole is around 70% water and your brain alone around 90%. So, with water comprising the vast majority of every cell in your body, there’s no arguing with the fact that you need to keep it topped up in order to function properly.
When you lead a busy life, it’s easy to forget to keep drinking, particularly if you’re on the move a lot of the time. But the consequences of not staying hydrated can be hugely detrimental to your well being and level of success you’re able to achieve. Various studies have shown that at a level of just 2% dehydration, short-term memory, attention, concentration and information processing are all negatively affected. Above 2% dehydration, you are also more likely to experience fatigue, tension, confusion and anger. And, clearly, with those symptoms you’re never going to be able to work at your best.
But what, exactly, does water do for your body?
To get scientific, your cells use the hydrogen molecules in water to make the basic unit of energy that runs your body. Hydrogen also deactivates and clears from your system the inflammatory free radicals that we get from environmental toxins, stress and byproducts of the body’s normal processes. These toxins – the potentially harmful waste in your body – are then flushed out through sweat and urine. And the oxygen in water helps oxygenate your blood, pumping up your cells and enabling them to function at full capacity.
Kick sick days to the kerb!
Another key benefit of drinking plenty of water is that it helps boost your immunity, keeping sickness at bay, and that’s hugely important when you’re running your own business:
- When the cells in your body are firing on all cylinders and working at their best, they can fight foreign bodies, such as germs, much more effectively.
- When the kidneys are operating properly, they are constantly flushing out toxins through urination. That means your immune system is not hampered by having to fight these toxins and can focus on any external threats.
- Lack of sleep is known to have a hugely negative impact on the immune system. Hydrating yourself regularly boosts the production of melatonin, the chemical that helps you sleep.
- Lymph fluid runs through your body, collecting bacteria and transporting it to your lymph nodes, where it’s destroyed. Drinking a healthy amount of water means the right amount of lymph fluid is produced and your lymph nodes can work at their most effective levels.
- The more you drink, the more moisture there will be in your eyes and mouth, which helps prevent infection from gaining access to your body in the first place.
- We wash the outside of our bodies to stay clean and germ-free, so think of drinking water as a cleanse for your internal organs. The more fluid you keep washing through your body, the less chance there is of any harmful bacteria and infection taking hold.
Other benefits of drinking water:
- Maintains regularity. Water is essential for the digestion of food, plus good hydration helps prevents constipation.
- Prevents cramps and reduces likelihood of injury through exercise. Proper hydration helps keep your joints lubricated and muscles more elastic.
- Keeps headaches at bay. One of the most common signs of dehydration is a headache – no wonder, if your brain is 90% water! – so drink regularly throughout the day. You may also find it relieves back pain.
- Improves your complexion. Water is one of the best anti-aging treatments around, plumping up the cells and keeping your skin fresh and smooth.
- Can aid weight loss. Often, when people think they’re hungry, they’re actually dehydrated, so drinking water can reduce both hunger and the amount that you eat at mealtimes. Water also helps remove the by-products of fat.
“Drinking water is like washing out your insides. The water will cleanse the system, fill you up, decrease your caloric load and improve the function of all your tissues.” – Kevin R. Stone, M.D.
So it’s little wonder that if you stay properly hydrated, you’ll feel so much better in yourself. Your mind will be sharper, meaning you’ll be able to think, focus and concentrate better, and you’ll have more energy to invest in your business efforts. In addition, you should find you’re in a better mood, which is not only great for you, but also for those around you!
If you aren’t keen on the taste of water on its own, the first thing I’d suggest is that you try to get used to it! However, if you really can’t, then add a slice of lemon, a squeeze of lime, a slice of orange or a sprig of mint – anything natural, which may also top up your daily vitamins.
In terms of quantity, you should be drinking around two litres of water a day and room temperature is more hydrating than cold. Obviously, if it’s warm weather or you’re doing a lot of exercise, you should drink more, and your age is a factor – the older you are, the less water your body is able to store. Your ideal water intake amount will also depend on your weight but, as a general rule of thumb, if you aim for two litres – that’s around 8-10 glasses a day – you should be about right.
5 top tips for staying properly hydrated:
- Whenever you feel hungry, have a large glass of water.
- Contrary to popular belief, caffeine doesn’t increase the risk of dehydration (although it may have a mildly diuretic effect) so feel free to include tea and coffee in your water intake.
- Water in food also counts, so eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. Cucumber and lettuce have the highest water content of any food at 96%, with tomatoes just behind on 94%, so try adding those to your meals.
- Minimise your intake of dehydrating products, including: salty snacks & ready meals, cured meats, sugary treats & alcohol.
- If you notice your urine is any darker than pale yellow, increase your water intake.
Now, on to the solid fuel: food.
Obviously, not all food is equal, in terms of quality and nutrients, so you need to educate yourself and eat smart. You’re already approaching your business with dedication, discipline and passion, so make sure you don’t neglect this one thing that could yield the greatest long-term benefit to your life.
Have you noticed that the most successful people are rarely ill? That’s no coincidence – people who value themselves highly tend to invest in their own well-being. So, make a promise to yourself right now that healthy eating habits will become as important to your personal life as your sales and marketing strategies are to your business life.
Being healthy makes you smarter, more focused and more driven. By prioritising high-quality nutrition, you’ll find the extra energy, motivation and brainpower to take your business to the next level and achieve your goals.
Keep that engine running…
Just about everything we eat is converted by our body into glucose, which provides much of the energy that our brains need to stay alert. When we run low on glucose, the brain is essentially starved of energy, which is why we find it hard to concentrate on an empty stomach. So we need to eat, but the trick is keeping those glucose levels steady while allowing the rest of our bodily functions to operate at their best.
The first thing to understand is that our bodies process different foods at different rates. Carbohydrates that are high in refined starches and sugar, such as white bread, rice and other sugary treats are processed quickly, giving you an energy burst or ‘sugar rush’. High-fat foods, such as cheese and fatty meat, take longer to process so give more sustained energy but need our digestive system to work harder, which reduces oxygen in the brain and makes us groggy.
On the other hand, carbs that are high in fibre, such as root vegetables, grains and legumes are slow-release and good for our digestive system because they’re simple and unrefined. And lean proteins have a more complex molecular structure than simple carbs so, again, take longer to digest, providing a long-lasting source of fuel.
It’s clear, then, that to keep your body and mind working at their optimum level, you need to feed yourself the right combination of foods. And, as far as I’m concerned, the best way to achieve that is to follow a clean-eating plan.
‘Let food be thy medicine, thy medicine shall be thy food.’ – Hippocrates
I began the clean food diet six years ago when I was suffering from heartburn and I’ve never felt better. Not only has it improved my daily energy levels, but I find I don’t get the peaks and troughs of that cycle of feeling hungry, eating too much then feeling stuffed until I’m hungry again! Clean eating has brought greater clarity to my mind and a better balance to my body
What is ‘clean eating’?
Essentially, clean eating focuses on consuming foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, trying to eliminate from your diet things that are processed and refined. ‘Unclean’ foods are loaded with artificial ingredients, sweeteners, preservatives and lots of other harmful additives and chemicals that serve no purpose other than to make bad food taste better or prolong its shelf life.
Preparing as many meals as you can from scratch with fresh, simple ingredients, is not only kinder to your body and mind, but also tends to be easier on your wallet and on the environment. And it’s one of the easiest changes I’ve ever made in my life – the ‘rules’ are so simple.
The exact diet plan people follow might differ, but here’s what clean eating means to me:
1. Eat fresh. That means going for fruit & vegetables that are in season, fresh fish and meat – anything that’s not processed, frozen, smoked, cured or preserved.
2. Eat raw. When you cook something, the heat depletes vitamins and damages proteins and fats. And because you’re breaking it down a little before it enters your body, your body has to do less work to get at the nutrients and absorbs the calories more easily. In contrast, raw food has more water content, nutrients and fibre and keeps you feeling satisfied for longer. Raw foods also tend to have more flavour than cooked foods, meaning there’s less temptation to add salt or sugar.
3. Eat organic and non-GMO where possible. Unless the label says ‘organic’ and ‘non-GMO’, you’re probably eating genetically-modified foods that have been sprayed with weed-killing herbicide glyphosate. The problem is that as well as starving the weeds of the nutrients they need to live, the spray starves the crops of their micronutrients as well, meaning you’re eating a depleted food. Not only that, but WHO has published a report showing that glyphosate is carcinogenic. So, by eating organic and non-GMO, you’ll get far more vitamins and minerals and avoid loading yourself with potentially cancer-causing chemicals.
4. Cut out added sugar and salts. Sugar hides in everything! As well as containing ‘empty’ calories, sugar causes your glucose levels to spike then crash, leading to major fluctuations in energy levels. There is fructose (natural sugar) in fruit, honey and some vegetables and that’s plenty in our diets. We don’t need sugar for energy – our bodies are well set up to convert foods to glucose.
The added ‘sugar’ you really need to look out for is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the liquid sweetener that’s very low cost for manufacturers and therefore their preferred sweetener for processed, pre-packaged foods, such as soft drinks, baked goods, bread and breakfast cereals. Any product with HFCS is going to be low quality, full of artificial ingredients and lacking nutrients.
So, try not to consume anything with added sugar and limit the amount of natural fructose you drink. I’d suggest you cut out fruit juice entirely.
While we don’t need sugar, our bodies do need salt – or, rather, sodium – in order to function. It’s needed to transmit nerve impulses, operate muscles (including those in the heart) and maintain a healthy fluid balance, but all that only requires is around one teaspoon a day.
If you have too much salt in your diet and your kidneys can’t flush it out in your urine, it accumulates in the fluid between your cells, which attracts water. As the volume of water increases, so does the volume of blood, which means more work for your heart. Over time, the blood vessels can stiffen, leading to high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. So, taking on more salt that you need can certainly have serious consequences.
However, because sodium occurs naturally in many foods and is added to those that are processed, in the modern world we consume far more than one teaspoon a day. The advice from most health organisations is to limit your salt intake to a maximum of one teaspoon a day. If you exercise regularly, and therefore sweat out a lot of salt, you will need to take in more.
Because clean eating cuts out processed foods, you might feel you need or want to add a little salt to your diet, in which case use pink Himalayan salt, which contains a number of minerals not found in regular salt.
5. Avoid anything processed. As I’ve already said, processed foods contain too much sugar, salt and harmful additives, lack nutrients and put stress on your digestive system. This includes ‘diet’ and low-fat alternatives, which might contain fewer calories than the more natural, full-fat option, but are far worse for your energy levels, organs and overall well being. So, have butter, not margarine; whole milk, not skimmed; full-fat cheese, not substitutes, and steer well clear of ready meals.
6. Ditch refined foods. When whole grains get refined (usually to make a ‘white’ version, e.g. rice, bread and pasta), that process strips out virtually all the naturally-occurring good fibre, vitamins and minerals. That means you’re getting something that’s very nutritionally poor and, because refined foods can be digested quickly, you’ll also get a blood sugar spike. So, swap refined grains for high-fibre ‘brown’ foods, such as whole-grain bread, whole-wheat flour, quinoa and porridge.
7. Fill up on protein. Diets that are higher in protein have been shown to suppress hunger, boost metabolism, increase muscle mass and decrease body fat. Good ‘clean’ sources of protein include: eggs, poultry, fish, beef, tofu, dairy, nuts and beans.
8. Eat ‘good’ fats. We need some fat in our diets. It’s a rich source of energy, provides us with essential fatty acids and helps us absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. ‘Good’ fat comes in two main forms:
• Saturated – e.g. in cheese, butter, cream and fatty meats. This fat increases cholesterol and should be limited. You can tell it’s saturated if it is solid at room temperature.
• Unsaturated – e.g. in avocados, vegetable and olive oils, nuts and oily fish – help maintain healthy cholesterol levels, so can be eaten in greater abundance. Unsaturated fats are generally liquid at room temperature.
What you need to avoid are ‘bad’ fats: fried oils, refined fats and hydrogenated or trans fats – essentially the fats that you find in processed foods. They reduce the amount of good cholesterol in the blood, increase harmful cholesterol, create inflammation and contribute to insulin resistance. They have absolutely no health benefits.
“In a world of instant gratification, good nutrition provides the energy to meet deadlines, to stay focused during long meetings and to think clearly through complex tasks.” Linda Cuda, Registered Dietitian
It makes total sense that what we eat affects not just our physical health, but also our mental health. If you eat processed and refined foods that have little nutritional value, contain far more sugar and salt than you need and are digested too quickly – causing energy and mood spikes and crashes – you can’t possibly be effective in running your business.
But if you stay properly hydrated and eat clean foods that contain all their natural fibre, vitamins, minerals, and no harmful additives, you’re going to be healthier, far less likely to suffer stress, and more alert, energetic and productive.
10 top tips for daily healthy eating:
- Drink plenty of water – at least 8 glasses a day.
- Plan ahead. Studies show we make much better choices about the quality of our meals and are better at resisting salt, sugar and fat if we plan ahead of time.
- Avoid processed foods – eat as ‘clean’ as you can.
- Don’t skip breakfast: eggs, Greek yoghurt, oatmeal, fruit & lean protein will all help you start your day well.
- Eat smaller meals, spaced out regularly, to maintain your glucose at a consistent level.
- Include plenty of fresh fruit & raw vegetables to increase your dopamine and antioxidant levels.
- A third of your food intake should be high-fibre or wholegrain starchy carbohydrates (e.g. skin-on potatoes, wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta, cereals).
- Include lean protein (e.g. white fish, chicken and legumes) and low GI foods that release energy slowly, such as oats, cereals and nuts.
- Avoid foods that cause your blood sugar – and subsequently your energy and mood – to rise and fall rapidly, such as biscuits, sweets and alcohol.
- Have only healthy snacks to hand, e.g. almonds in your desk and car, fruit in the office fridge.
Clean eating isn’t a ‘diet’, it’s a healthy way of life that’s genuinely easy to follow and it can’t fail to have a positive impact on you.