How does eating well promote and sustain cognitive functions such as focus, decision-making, creativity for problem solving and emotional intelligence?  How can eating well help mitigate these potential detrimental impact of long work hours, high levels of stress and often significant travel?

For answers to these and more on the link between eating well and performing well read on.

Tim Collings of 4igroup recently interviewed me on links between eating well and leading well.  Here is a transcript of the interview.

 1.  I talk about Leadership roles being driven by cognitive functions such as focus, decision-making, creativity for problem solving, emotional intelligence. How important is eating well in sustaining and promoting these functions?

The foods you eat provide ingredients to your body. Your body uses these ingredients to enable its core eleven interconnected and interdependent body systems to function. It is these systems that enable your ability to think, to make decisions, to problem solve and to effectively manage emotion. Choosing to eat nutrient dense food gives your body the foundation it needs to achieve and sustain optimal function.

2.  Leadership roles in many of today’s organisations involve long work hours, high levels of stress and often significant travel. How can eating well help mitigate these detrimental influences on leadership performance?

It is important to understand the body does not distinguish between the sources of stress, whether it is unhealthy and/or not eating, pressure of high work demands or toxicity from chemicals you are exposed to. These sources of stress can all impact and can undermine optimal physiology.

Be aware as a living thing the body is constantly repairing, maintaining and growing. Eating nutrient dense foods enables it to undertake repairs, maintenance and growth on an ongoing basis. If it is experiencing stress physiology, these demands upon it increase.

Asking your body to repair, maintain and grow particularly where demands are increased without giving it the nutrients it needs, is like asking a person to dig a whole without a shovel.

3.  What do you see as the largest impediment to leaders optimizing their performance by eating well?

There are a few. One I talk about quite a lot is how we view food. In our recent history food has been strongly associated with the concept of physical energy. We have all likely heard food described as energy in and energy out. It led us to see food in terms of calories or fuel.

It means we do not see food in terms of the nutrients, to distinguish between foods based on the quality and density of the nutrients it offers us.

As a leader or emerging leader, I encourage you to reframe food in terms of its nutrients, how it enables you to sustain your ability to do, to make decisions, to engage, relate and motivate and to combat the impact of busyness and/or stress that generally forms part of a modern working life.

4.  Are there particular food groups which you would recommend are generally beneficial for a busy, stressful, cognitive function driven leader?

A balanced nutrient dense and varied eating plan is the foundation for high performance. However stress places heavy demands on the use of key nutrients by the body, in particular nutrients required to run our energy systems and combat the load of stress. It is important, we eat foods that are rich in nutrients, and they include magnesium, B Vitamins, healthy fats as well as include moderate amounts of quality carbs.

5.  Are there any food groups or types which you’d recommend be minimized, or avoided all together?

Foods sit on a spectrum, at one end are healthier foods and at the other are the least healthy foods. I encourage you to eat from the healthier food end most of the time. However if you occasionally stray, it will not be the end of the world. In business, we often talk about the 80/20 rule. You can apply this to healthy eating.

Food at the healthier end of the spectrum includes 5 daily serve of veg, 1-2 daily serve of fruit, 2 ½ -3 serve of daily protein, approximately 4-6 serves of quality carbs (e.g. brown rice, legumes, quinoa, wholemeal couscous and pasta), quality fats found in foods like avocado, extra virgin olive oil, cold water oily fish, nuts and seeds. And 4-6 glasses of water daily.

On the other end of the spectrum are processed and refined foods, take-away high poor quality fat dense foods, foods high in added sugar and excessive intake of stimulants like coffee and alcohol.

6.  Would you say supplements have a role to play, or is ‘real food’ always the best source?

I love the expression, just eat real food. Supplements can play a role for those who are experiencing poor health and are working with an appropriate health practitioner to re-establish improved health.

I do not support self-prescription. Supplements have a “therapeutic range”. It means there is a dosage that is most effective. Below and above this range, the supplement can be either ineffective or potentially have toxic side effects, particularly if the supplement is taken over a longer period of time. If considering supplements, speak to an appropriate health professional.

7.  How can organisations play a role in optimizing their leaders’ performance by supporting them to eat well?

I strongly encourage ownership and accountability when it comes to healthy eating. However organisations can support this by creating an environment that encourages and supports healthy eating habits. We model the behaviour of others in our organisations, particularly leaders. If it is normal practice for leaders to skip lunch or inhale lunch on the run between meetings we can feel compelled to do it ourselves.

To begin focus on simple basics. Be seen to stop to eat a healthy lunch, to make time to sit and chew your food, to support the creation of communal places for people to sit, eat and relax over food and by giving your support to things like easier access to healthier snacks. You can progress from there.

8. How can leaders play a role in benefiting all members of the organization to optimize their performance by eating well?

Model eating healthy and healthy eating behaviour themselves. If it is clear your employees do not sufficiently understand the link between healthy eating and sustainable high performance, invest to help them build this insight. For example, run a workshop to deliver practical and compelling insights on the links between healthy eating and how they enable sustainable performance.

9.  If you were to give leaders just one piece of advice in regards to eating, what would it be?

Aim to eat intuitively, this means you need to build awareness of how your body responds to foods. Be aware we are all a little different, so what works for you for healthy eating plan may not work for others. Focus on what you need to function optimally. If you need guidance, seek it out

Tim Collings is a principal of 4iGroup, specialists in people search and selection, organizational performance, leadership coaching and commercial intelligence.

You can also read the blog on Tim’s website at: Eat Well – Lead Well




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