Running on Empty

Monday, May 1, 2006 - 15:55

Working long and hard means many executives easily forget the importance of good eating habits. Are you among those sabotaging your performance with a sub-optimum diet? Megan Gressor reports.

In a high-performance position you have to be alert at day's end, not just in the first few hours. To do this you had better make sure your energy levels remain high. If you are tiring early in the day, suffering brain fade and losing focus you need to look at your diet. Problems arise when there is no time to eat, or you grab snacks on the run. The failure to achieve a balanced diet can be a recipe for poor decision making and worse performance.

For all that, there's a lot of bad eating habits and poor nutrition out there. Scan the financial pages and you're regularly confronted with a gallery of executives whose cascading chins betray a lifetime of dinners, lunches and drinkathons with clients.

Typically, they'll only address the problem when confronted by a health scare, such as impaired glucose function or a high cholesterol reading, according to dietitian Sharon Natoli, Director of Food & Nutrition Australia.

Natoli's clients include many corporates who eat the wrong things at the wrong times - like the man who only had one meal a day, a vast three-course lunch washed down with alcohol, yet didn't understand why he felt perpetually sluggish.

"Many managers need to take greater control over their food intake to effectively optimise energy, performance and overall health," she says. They spend a lot of time in meetings and on planes, effectively outsourcing their nutrition to others, with dubious results.

Even the fare on offer at expensive restaurants tends to be unbalanced, according to Natoli. "You often get plenty of meat or fish, but not much salad or vegetables; often you have to order them as side dishes, they don't even come with the meal."

Generally speaking, the problem isn't lack of nutritional knowledge so much as loss of control over food choices, according to Dr John Lang of Good Health Solutions, a Sydney-based health and wellbeing consultancy whose clients include Optus, the City of Sydney, and Ernst & Young.

"To eat well is a challenge in a long work hours environment," he says. "For example, an ideal working lunch would be something like a tuna and salad sandwich on multigrain bread, but you're not going to get anything like that at an executive function where the food tends to be loaded with fat and salt, with a high GI (glycaemic index, a measure of how fast a food's energy is released into the bloodstream)."

After a high GI meal, you get a spike in blood glucose that is countered by a spike in insulin, Lang explains. "This drives the glucose down but it overshoots the mark so you end up with what's called post-absorptive hypoglycaemia - meaning your blood glucose crashes after eating."

The resulting mid-afternoon slump can encourage snacking on more high GI items, resulting in a boom-bust cycle with blood glucose lurching from spike to spike. This is bad news for the brain, which, unlike other organs, is completely dependent on blood glucose to function.

The result: diminished ability to concentrate, recall things or perform complex cognitive tasks.

Sometimes, it can be hard even staying awake, as corporate lawyer Paul Sistrom, 53, can attest. A partner at Middletons, specialising in contract work in the energy sector, he has to be on the ball, with literally hundreds of millions hanging on many deals.

But years of long days and erratic meals - skipping breakfast, not getting away from the office until eight or so, then snacking late in the evening on potato chips - had taken their toll; while Sistrom maintained his work performance, he was so lethargic that he literally spent his lunchtimes asleep at his desk.

"Poor eating doesn't usually occur in isolation but as part of a work/life imbalance that's also reflected in inadequate sleep and exercise and high levels of stress," says Ken Buckley, Managing Director of Health Works, which runs corporate health programs for organisations including Johnson & Johnson Medical, SmithKline and Beecham and several government departments.

While managers are often aware of the problem, changing unhealthy habits is hard in an all-consuming work environment without any ongoing support.

"It takes at least 30 days to establish new habits," he says. "If it's not part of your day-to-day routine, nine times out of 10 it won't happen."

Health Works offers four, six or eight-week programs involving weekly meetings with "lifestyle strategists" who work with managers to identify problem areas and develop strategies for improvement.

Peer support is important, and can include breakfast seminars on nutrition or exercise programs undertaken in teams, "because if they think they're all in it together they're more likely to stick with it," Buckley adds.

Ultimately, when the bottom line depends on your making the right moves day after day, you've really got no choice but to eat right. That was the conclusion Sistrom reached when, after discovering he was prediabetic, he consulted a dietitian at Food & Nutrition Australia who advised him to stop "eating rubbish".

So he adopted a low GI diet based on vegetables, fruit and wholegrain cereals, cutting down on saturated fat and alcohol and making a point of eating proper meals at regular intervals.

Less than a month into his new regime, Sistrom has lost weight and no longer needs those midday naps. "I feel more energy, enthusiasm and wellbeing," he says. "Now, instead of going to sleep at lunchtime, I go for a walk. I'm thinking of getting the old mountain bike out and going for a ride."

Avoiding temptation

After undertaking an executive fitness program last year, Peter Ozols, a senior manager in the Public Service, shed 10 kilos by cutting down on takeaways in favour of more fruit and vegetables, and having a high-carb breakfast at home in place of his regular egg and bacon roll at the station. He's also upped his activity by walking his dog everyday and gardening on the weekend.

While hardly immune to temptation - Ozols now sits in the last carriage on the train to work and avoids seeing the station kiosk serving up those seductive egg and bacon sarnies - he's looking forward to losing another five kilos, and says that the payoff, in terms of increased energy levels, is already apparent.

"I used to find myself flagging by mid-afternoon," he says. "Now I'll look up and it's already past five and I'm ready to keep right on going."

Be prepared

All too often, healthy choices are hard to make in a corporate work environment. Try these tips to make them a little easier.

Plan ahead
Keep muesli and skim milk in the office to ensure you have breakfast everyday. Shop for items such as ham, tuna or low-fat cheese, salad and multigrain bread on the weekend; whack them together on the toaster at work and that's your lunch sorted. No time to shop? Delegate to your PA.

Ask for it
Call to request low-fat choices before attending functions. If you're a frequent flyer, call your airline to register your food preferences and you'll be served low-fat meals always.

Snack right
Have a fruit bowl on your desk; that way, when the munchies hit, you won't head for the biscuit barrel. Or keep trail mix - those packets of nuts and dried fruit - in your desk drawer. Never let yourself get too hungry, or you'll make unwise choices.

Write it down
Record your daily food intake; it's a great reality check. Diarise exercise breaks as you would any other important engagement; that way, you're more likely to follow through.

Eating out
Ask for meat or seafood to be grilled. Avoid creamy sauces and dressings, and choose fruit-based desserts. If you have two courses, make both entrees, not an entree and main. Skip the bread roll. Ask for water to quench your thirst; that way, you'll go slower on alcohol. Choose light beers and low joule mixers such as diet cola or tonic.

Too tired to cook?
Don't just grab a late night pizza on the way home, consider healthier options such as services that will deliver gourmet low-fat meals to your door.

Get a life
Stress is the enemy of positive lifestyle changes and is also the number one reason for relapse in weight-loss programs. Consider ways to improve your work/life balance.

Dealing with diabetes

A high-fat diet and sedentary lifestyle, typical for many managers, are risk factors for diabetes, Australia's fastest-growing chronic disease, with around 55,000 people diagnosed every year.

One of them is Pam Davis, National Administration Manager of a major industry association. While initially devastated, she now looks upon the diagnosis as a wake-up call.

"It forced me to take a good look at my lifestyle and make changes I'd been putting off for years," she says. The first was to overhaul her diet, reducing fat and upping her intake of low GI foods.

She tries to eat "little and often"; regular small meals spaced throughout the day to keep her blood glucose on an even keel. Davis also exercises regularly, walking to work and joining a women-only gym, where she enjoys the resistance exercise regime. "Left to my own devices, I tend to slug about," she admits. "That's something you just can't afford to do with diabetes."

Diabetes can be treated, or even prevented, by eating a low-fat, high-carb diet and exercising regularly.


High-performance eating

Dietitian Sharon Natoli recommends this daily food plan to maintain energy and focus. Try to eat every three or four hours to maintain blood glucose levels.

  • Breakfast: this should include carbohydrate, the body's preferred energy source - bread, grains, fruit - plus a little protein (e.g. an egg, nuts on your muesli, baked beans), which takes time to digest, keeping the hunger pangs at bay. Don't be tempted to skip breakfast, no matter how rushed; research shows that people who eat breakfast have better nutritional intake overall and can concentrate longer.
  • Mid-morning and afternoon snacks: choose from fresh or dried fruit, nuts, wholegrain crackers, fruit bread, wholegrain toast with peanut butter, low-fat yoghurt or skimmed milk coffee.
  • Lunch: this should include a balance of carbohydrates (bread, pasta or rice); protein (meat, fish, egg); and salad and vegies.
  • Dinner: similar as for lunch, although the carbohydrate is less important as you need less energy now your workday has ended.