It’s 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. You arrived at work hours ago, but haven’t had breakfast yet. You can feel your energy starting to fade. So you swing by the office kitchen, and there’s a tray of sugary pastries calling your name. You’ve got a lot on your plate today so rather than spend time and energy figuring out a healthier alternative, you just grab one and get back to work. We’ve all done this at some point—and when the sugar high wore off a bit later, leaving us lethargic and foggy, we’ve regretted it.

On busy days, healthy eating is often a low-priority (right after answering that non-essential email that’s been staring at you from your inbox for two weeks). But a mountain of research shows that, as the saying goes, we really are what we eat (and drink). If you want to stay productive, maintain your energy and focus, and keep your brain and body healthy, you have to move proper nutrition higher up on your to-do list.

Welcome to the Thrive Guide to Nutrition

Thrive Global is a behavior change platform focused on lowering stress and burnout while increasing well-being and productivity. The company, founded by Arianna Huffington, creates lasting change in people’s lives by giving them sustainable, science-backed solutions to enhance their performance and overall well-being.

This Thrive Guide will walk you through the research showing that eating well is important not only for your health, but for your work performance, too.

Stress combined with a packed schedule is a recipe for less-than-healthy food choices. (Who hasn’t reached for a sugary energy bar during a hunger emergency?) But when you’re armed with the knowledge and strategies you need to make nutritious choices, eating well becomes easy. You’ll see how straightforward it is to eat for optimal performance with our Thrive Global Microsteps—simple, science-backed changes you can start acting on today. 

We’ll introduce you to the New Role Models Of Success who show that healthy eating is good for your mind, body and performance. Award-winning chef and restaurateur Aarón Sánchez tells Thrive that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables gives him energy, which is why he keeps bags of fruit with him to snack on throughout the day; Hilsinger-Mendelson CEO Sandi Mendelson explains how healthy eating fuels her energy; and Whitney Tingle, co-founder of organic meal-delivery startup Sakara Life, reveals that staying hydrated is her secret life hack.

In our Tech to Thrive section, we’ve curated apps to help you stay on track with your nutrition goals.

Making healthy eating a priority is important, but helping your team fuel their own performance is critical. Our Managerial Takeaways section offers advice for managers to be role models and support systems for their direct reports as they make proper nutrition part of their daily lives. This can range from turning team celebrations into opportunities for healthy eating to being more mindful about what snacks are available in the office. With the whole team working together, the goal becomes more attainable for everyone.

By the end of this guide, you’ll know exactly what you need to do to make healthy eating your new normal. Let’s start by looking at the research showing that a thoughtful, balanced diet is essential to performing your best at work and beyond.

How What You Eat and Drink Fuels Your Performance

“The foods we eat affect us more than we realize,” psychologist and founder of ignite 80 Ron Friedman, PhD, wrote in an insightful Harvard Business Review piece. “With fuel, you can reliably expect the same performance from your car no matter what brand of unleaded you put in your tank. Food is different. Imagine a world where filling up at Mobil meant avoiding all traffic and using BP meant driving no faster than 20 miles an hour. Would you then be so cavalier about where you purchased your gas?”

Research shows that the quality and nutritional content of the foods we eat matter both for how we feel day-to-day and for our long-term health. One 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that almost half of the 700,000 deaths caused by heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes that researchers studied were linked to a poor diet.

Meanwhile healthier diets, like those filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins, help keep your mind and body functioning at their best. On the brain front, a recent study in the journal Neurology found that older people who followed a mostly-Mediterranean diet (think lots of fruits and vegetables, fish, chicken, legumes, whole grains and healthy fats like olive oil) had less brain shrinkage as they aged. And in terms of what to avoid, consider this: a diet full of junk food and fast food can negatively affect your brain’s synapses, harming your cognitive functioning, according a research paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. And there’s rat research suggesting that high-sugar diets may impact our memory. (We know—you’re a human, not a rat, but animal studies can provide useful insights.)

What you eat affects your mental state, too. One study in the British Journal of Health Psychology linked greater fruit and vegetable intake to more curiosity, creativity and feelings of well-being among young adults, and a 2016 survey of Americans reported that those who ate healthily were 34 percent less likely to suffer from depression.

Remember too that when you eat matters. Your brain runs on glucose, or blood sugar, which comes from the foods you eat. Maintaining a consistent eating schedule, which means not letting hours and hours pass between meals or snacks, and avoiding sugary or processed foods (which your body breaks down quickly, leading to blood sugar spikes and inevitable drops) will help keep your brain fueled and ready to tackle the day’s challenges.

You know a good night’s sleep is essential for a productive day at work, but you might not realize how your eating habits impact your nightly rest. Research has linked higher sugar intake to more interrupted (i.e. less restorative) sleep, while having more fiber in your diet is linked to more time spent in deep, slow wave sleep, the type that helps you wake up feeling re-energized. Of course, that link between sugar and sleep goes both ways, as people who sleep for only five or fewer hours per night are also more likely to drink sugary, caffeinated beverages like energy drinks and sodas, possibly because too-little sleep can sap your self-control.

Lastly, let’s consider your drinks of choice. Being just a little dehydrated can lower your mood, impact your ability to concentrate and even make tasks feel more difficult, according to research in the Journal of Nutrition. And while some caffeine is perfectly fine to help you get going in the morning, the Mayo Clinic reports that more than four cups of coffee per day (or an equivalent amount of caffeine) can lead to issues like migraines, insomnia (remember, caffeine stays in your system for hours), irritability and even stomach problems. And how’s this for a full-circle moment? Research suggests that after just three nights of too-little sleep (think 5 hours per night), which could be influenced by your eating and drinking habits, caffeine won’t even help you be more alert.

Commit to Making Changes Now

Now that you understand how big of a role nutrition plays in your performance at the office and at home, you can get started on the microsteps.

  1. Bring your lunch to work.

    If finding healthy food options at work is a challenge, or if you don’t have time for a lunch break, you can take control and be intentional about what you put in your body by packing your own healthy lunch the night before. Even starting with one day a week will make a difference.

  2. Keep a water bottle at your desk.

    You’ll avoid the temptation of soda and other sugary drinks. Plus, refilling your bottle throughout the day will provide you with much-needed breaks and opportunities to step away from your desk and connect with others.

  3. Avoid eating big meals right before bed.

    It can take us two or three hours to digest a meal, so it’s important to be mindful of your mealtimes – especially if you’re a night owl or work in the evening. It’s also best to avoid spicy foods before bedtime, which can cause heartburn and bloating.

These seemingly small changes will help make healthy nutrition part of your daily routine.