Nutrition and cognition: The comeback story of an unproductive under-eater

"You are what you eat."

Everything you eat affects how your body functions daily.

But it is easy to get into bad habits. We feel tired, unproductive and stressed. We counteract these feelings with alcohol, smoking and takeaway but we are only spiralling further down.

We're now facing global health epidemics like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and mental health issues. In a bid to avoid or counteract these diagnoses people turn to fad diets. Low carb/ low fat/ low calorie, juice cleanses, vegan, high protein, I could go on.

We've created a venomous dieting culture and there are no regulations to expose the lies from the truth. And we're left feeling lethargic, falling behind at work and panicked about how to fix it.

A study revealed that employees consuming unhealthy diets are 66 percent more likely to experience a loss in productivity.

The truth is there is no instant cure, magic pill or almighty brain food that can help cure a lack of productivity.

But what if eating more food, albeit good, healthy, wholesome food can improve your productivity?

The foods we consume and diets we adopt have a much more significant impact on our productivity than we realise.

So let's unpack how to turn your food into fuel to optimise your day.

Fueling breakfast containing good fats, low GI foods and vitamins
Credit: Photo by Jannis Brandt on Unsplash

The story behind an unproductive under-eater

This post comes from the heart. For the past 6 years I've been an extremely active person in various sports like Crossfit, Strongman and Olympic Lifting - weight and strength-based sports - are my forte. I was never a runner or netballer, like most girls I knew.

During a workout of about 1 - 1.5 hours, I was burning between 300-500 calories. And burning calories is optimal for weight loss... or is it?

While I did see a drastic improvement in my strength, my body weight never budged and I was experiencing a very low mood, in a poor state of mental health.

I was tired from the moment I woke up, to the time I went to bed.

I would skip meals out of pure laziness.

I developed an unusual fluctuation in hormones and suffered six years of adult acne.

I felt overweight.

My motivation for work was lagging and my ability to concentrate limited to a few minutes at a time. I spent years feeling crappy and only in the past 8 months have I REALLY made an effort to turn this around.

Over the years in these sports, I've met some great athletes. Some of which hold world records and some who have a bible-like of knowledge on nutrition, like my partner Michael, a gym owner.

We sat down one day to nut out my current diet. I couldn't tell you what I ate on an average day because I just ate whatever was in the cupboard when I was hungry. Poor form on my behalf for someone who wanted a 6 pack, quads the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger's and boulder shoulders.

Since I had no idea what foods I was consuming, I started tracking my daily eating habits using my favourite app of all time, My Fitness Pal. A food diary app, but better!

For a female with the following stats:

  • Height: 165 cm
  • Weight: 75 kg
  • Job type: Desk/sedentary
  • Calories burnt during exercise: 300-500 cal

My recommended daily caloric intake is 2,631 and after a week of tracking, I discovered I was only eating around 1000 calories a day...

My metabolism was shot, my protein was low, my sleep quality was poor and for someone who wants to build muscle mass, this was not optimal. Everything began to make a whole lot more sense.

Although 2,000+ calories seem like an extreme amount, it's actually not. This is something those fad diets fail to tell you!

Your body requires energy from foods in order to perform optimally. This is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) or also known as your Calorie Maintenance Level. Your TDEE is made up of the energy you burn when sleeping, working, exercising, and eating. Yes, you burn calories even when you're just sitting on the couch!

Now I had my baseline of hitting 2,000+ calories a day, it was time to put a plan into action and begin a new phase, reverse dieting.

Reverse dieting = more food!

The word "dieting" automatically triggers us to think about weight loss.

The moment we decide to go on a diet we assume we should be restricting what we eat but this is all kinds of wrong.

How do I know?

I tried it myself.

I was consuming 1000 calories a day and I wasn't experiencing any weight loss. Why? Because my metabolism was abysmal.

Katie Coles, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer with a masters in nutrition and bachelor of science in biology says, "Over repeated bouts of calorie restriction, your metabolism takes a beating. When you drop calories too low for too long, your body intervenes on several fronts. Most notably, it reduces the number of calories you burn throughout the day, often priming your body for surprisingly rapid weight gain."

Umm hello! If this ain't me...

Starvation mode vs reality
Credit: Image by thefitnesschef_

So what is reverse dieting?

It's basically what it sounds like. A diet turned upside-down. Rather than limiting your caloric intake, you are firing up your metabolism by adding calories back into your diet.

While this sounds easy, and amazing, because who doesn't want to eat more food to lose weight. It requires strategy. You need to give your metabolism time to adjust by making slow changes.

I didn't jump straight from consuming 1,000 calories to 2,000 calories in a day. If I had, my body would have stored all these additional calories as body fat due to being deprived for too long.

Metabolic adaption

When your body is experiencing calorie restriction, it senses an energy gap and slows your metabolism. Your organs consume less energy and an adjustment in hormones that influence your metabolism such as thyroid and testosterone.

When attempting to increase your metabolism, you can't expect to attend a buffet one night and wake up the next day with increased metabolism. It takes time.

According to an article on on the ultimate guide to reverse Dieting, Researchers at Laval University overfed 24 men by 1000 calories for 84 days. Almost all of the extra calories turned into fat or contributed to lean mass. By the end of the study, as each subject's metabolism adapted, more calories were burned.

The moral here is that a person's metabolism will speed up eventually to dispose of some of the extra calories you eat, but if you drastically increase calories before your metabolism has time to catch up, you'll pile on the pounds. To avoid a pound pile, start by increasing your calories by 50 - 100 calories a week until you reach your TDEE.

Now we know about reverse dieting, what foods should we be eating?

Food tracking and identifying what could be causing productivity slumps

Food tracking is essential when it comes to beginning a new healthy eating regime. It gives you a clear idea of where you're at, and what you need to improve. A baseline.

From a productivity perspective, food tracking can provide insights into how your eating habits could be affecting your productivity at certain times of the day.

As I mentioned earlier, I use My Fitness Pal to track my food intake.

Whilst in my first week of tracking to gain some insight into what I was eating and when, I not only discovered I was undereating, but:

  • About 60% of my intake was made up of processed carbohydrates. I will go into more detail about processed carbs later in this post.
  • I was experiencing a productivity slump around 11am-12pm and 3pm-4pm every day.
  • When dinner time came, I was too tired to eat and would just go to bed.

When I began to increase my calorie intake with healthy wholesome foods, I wanted to ensure I was consuming what my body needed, so I began to fill out my calories with macronutrients following the rules of IIFYM - If It Fits Your Macros.

Your macros are made up of three nutrients. Our bodies require ample amounts of each to function;

  • Carbohydrates - According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbohydrates should make up 45–65% of total calories in our diet. This is a large range due to different body weights.
  • Fats - The Institute of Medicine (IOM) suggests that fat makes up 20–35% of total calories.
  • Protien - The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. This is a minimum, suggested for the average sedentary adult.

As an example, this is what my percentages looked like in grams whilst maintaining my calories at 2,631:

  • 40% = Carbs: 263 grams
  • 30% = Fats: 88 grams
  • 30% = Protein: 197 grams

Through the weeks leading up to hitting the optimal maintenance calories, the gram amounts were increasing along with my calorie intake but I always stuck to 40%, 30%, 30%.

By keeping a record of your eating habits like my example below, you can establish if you're overeating or under-eating.

If you're under-eating, you're neglecting your body's energy requirements and impairing its ability to thrive in daily life.

My Fitness Pal Daily Calorie Intake Example

Simple vs complex: Carbohydrates could be a burden on your productivity

The poor breakfast choices:

On average, I was eating breakfast only 3 days a week. THB I skipped breakfast out of sheer laziness. If I was peckish, I would just ignore it. If I were starving hungry to the point of feeling sick, I would whip up a few pieces of toast and a coffee... or 3. I drank way too much coffee because I was tired.

Essentially my breakfast was made up of nothing but processed carbohydrates and 2 or 3 hours after eating I felt sluggish.

Some days we find ourselves too busy to prepare a nutritious brekky but when you think about quick and easy breakfast foods, "high performance" cereals, toast or a bacon and egg McMuffin, they're all high in processed carbohydrates.

If you find yourself sluggish a few hours after consuming breakfast, it could be an overabundance of carbs killing your productivity.

Processed carbs are generally found in bread-orientated/sugary foods. They have a direct impact on our bodies daily energy reserves and insulin levels. Insulin controls your blood sugar levels or also known as, glucose.

Your glucose should remain within a narrow range of roughly 25 grams, about the same amount found in one banana.

When an overload of glucose occurs, your body produces extra glucose. It floods the brain with hormones like serotonin and tryptophan, the sleepy hormones.

The good breakfast choices:

While in my reverse dieting phase, I began to pay more attention to the foods I was consuming immediately after exercising (which was breakfast), and how I could fully nourish and support my mind and body through the power of food, to set me up for a good workday.

I opted for low GI (glycemic index) carbs. These are slow-release energy foods that will sustain your energy levels throughout the day.

I ate greek yoghurt with banana (for glucose), blueberries (for antioxidants) and rolled oats (for low GI carbs), to sustain my bodies energy.

To keep it exciting, some days I would go for eggs, bacon, non-starchy vegetables like tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms and the occasional slice of whole grain bread (for low GI carbs).

If you find you're strapped for time, prepare something the night before like Greek yoghurt, rolled oats and berries.

Carbohydrates aren't bad for you and you don't need to restrict your daily carb intake. The only rule is to make low GI choices (whole grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables) that will allow your body to slowly release energy throughout the day.

Improving productivity and brain health with food

We know that our morning routine sets the tone for how the rest of the day will pan out, but also has a significant impact on our daily productivity.

I always plan my day out the night before; my food, my to-do list for work and personal tasks and my workout.

When planning my meals, I make sure to include the following micronutrients for optimal brain health:

  • Folate: Green vegetables, meat and beans
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Fish, eggs, flaxseed and walnuts
  • Vitamin C: Berries, citrus fruits and bell peppers
  • Vitamin E: Nuts and vegetable oils

5 foods linked to better brain health infographic
Credit: Infographic by Harvard Health

My day from start to finish

5:30am: I wake up to head to the gym for an hour or so. I train in a fasted state (no food before training).

7:30am: I prepare a breakfast to equal about 500 calories with either greek yoghurt, fruit and rolled oats or a bacon and egg fry up. I have a black coffee and a protein shake with a creatine supplement to provide my muscles with fuel.

9:30am: I have a snack to keep my energy levels up. This is usually a handful of nuts, a banana or a protein shake.

11:30am: Lunch is my favourite time. I make, what I like to call, a 'Malad'. A man-sized salad. Basically a giant bowl of vegetables, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, you name it. For protein, I add tuna or salmon.

3:30pm: If I feel peckish, I'll have a green tea with a piece of fruit.

5:00pm: I knock off work. I might do another workout. If I do, I take an Acetyl L-Carnitine supplement which triggers your body to switch from burning carbs for energy to burning fats.

7:00pm: At dinner time I prefer to opt for vegetarian recipes. Lately, this has been vegetarian enchiladas made up of beans, spinach, corn or pumpkin, zucchini, a bunch of spices and cheese.

8:00pm: Plan out tomorrow and head to bed!

I eat regularly but each meal is made up of good wholesome foods that keep me going. As a result, my metabolism has skyrocketed!

As a result of this very strict plan I have created for myself, about a month ago I began to cut my calories down after hitting my maintenance of 2,000+ calories a day, just to really put all this work to the test.


  • I am sitting at around 1,600 calories a day.
  • I've lost 3kgs which seems small but, my body has transformed significantly. It's not always about the number on the scale.
  • I am waking up refreshed and full of energy.
  • My productivity and focus at work have drastically improved. My level of creativity has improved too.
  • My adult acne has completely disappeared and I no longer experience a fluctuation in my hormones.

As you can see, there are no secrets here. Just a plan and some dedication to following through on it. I feel great and you can feel great too.

If you want to be more productive, don't search for a magic bullet, it isn't out there. Make meaningful change in the areas of your life that you feel need it. If you feel tired, lethargic, your hormones are out of whack or you feel you are leaving something on the table... then following a plan like this might be exactly what you need.

So start making a plan, no one else is going to do it for you.

Everybody is different, always seek advice from professionals

I didn't follow a known diet of any kind to achieve all this. I researched and talked to professionals and athletes. This led me to discover that all I needed was to give my body the energy it needs. It was so simple.

If you want to follow a plan like this, you can do so with these:

  • Download the My Fitness Pal app and set up your body stats.
  • Track for a week doing what you currently do, don't change your eating. This will help you develop a baseline.
  • If you want to take your improvements to the next level and delve into the macronutrient side of things, check out IIFYM - If It Fits Your Macros.

The internet is an excellent place to source information and advice from professionals in all sorts of areas but, consider seeking help from a medical professional or a dietician if you find yourself really struggling to concentrate through the day.

By understanding the connection between nutrition and productivity, you can begin to make smarter choices about your eating habits.

Have you experienced productivity slumps as a result of a poor diet? What did you to do combat it? Let us know in the comments below.