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Nutrition to Fuel Your Work Performance

Just like elite athletes, we all need to fuel ourselves effectively to perform at our peak, and that includes at work!

You may have heard marathon runners or rugby players talking about nutrition in the context of optimising sporting performance. The importance of fuelling their bodies strategically in an endeavor to win a race or perform at their peak come game day. But have you ever stopped to think about how your food choices are contributing to your performance at work?

Despite our brain accounting for only approximately 2% of our body mass, it utilises approximately 20% of our energy intake to provide the necessary fuel to function at its best. As dietitians, we can apply nutrition strategies to fuel your brain for optimum cognitive performance, just like an elite athlete fuels their body for physical performance.

Here are our top nutrition strategies to fuel your work performance.

1.    Eat Vegemite for Improved Brain Function

Although our non-Australian friends can’t stand it, Vegemite is a nutrient-rich source of B group vitamins (vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, biotin, folic acid and B12). These play a significant role in maintaining healthy brain function as well as having a direct impact on energy levels. Fortunately, they are found in a range of foods, including our beloved Vegemite.

  • Choose salt-reduced vegemite as it is higher in B group vitamins than regular Vegemite. A single teaspoon provides 25-50% of your daily needs for vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, folate, and B12!
  • Other sources of B group vitamins include dairy products, eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, green vegetables, avocado, whole grains, legumes, citrus fruits, and bananas.

2.    Eat Eggs for Choline

Eggs are one of the richest sources of choline, an important nutrient shown to improve reaction time as well as enhance memory and concentration by boosting neuron function in the brain (this is the way parts of the brain communicate to each other).

  • Don’t be afraid of eggs as a nutritious breakfast choice to set you up for the day ahead. 2 medium eggs provide approximately 300mg choline per day (70% of the recommended daily intake). Be sure to eat the yolk (not just the white) as this is where most of the choline is found in an egg.
  • Salmon, tuna and cod are also great sources of choline (187mg choline per 85g serving of salmon). Tossing a tin of salmon through a salad or into a wrap makes a nutritious lunch choice.
  • For those following a vegan diet, shitake mushrooms and soybeans also provide a good amount of choline (115mg and 215mg per cup, respectively).

3.    Modify Your Carbohydrate Intake

All carbohydrates break down to sugar (glucose) to be used by your body and your brain as a source of energy. However, the rate at which this occurs varies and is measured by the glycaemic index (GI) scale.

  • Base your meals and snacks around lower GI carbohydrates such as rolled oats, wholegrain bread, basmati rice, sweet potato, legumes, most fruits, and reduced-fat dairy products. This will ensure your blood sugar levels are more stable across the day, providing your brain and your body with a steady flow of energy to power your performance at work.
  • Use higher GI foods to your advantage. When you are stressed or anxious (e.g. about an important meeting), lower GI meals tend to sit in the stomach for a longer period of time and can contribute to nausea with the background stress and anxiety. In these situations, something like a banana smoothie with additional honey would be a better choice to consume an hour or two before that meeting. Similarly, chopped watermelon or a few jelly snakes would be examples of high GI snacks to consume 30 mins before and during tasks requiring quick reaction times (e.g. an air traffic controller directing planes or a paramedic) as they digest to sugar quickly to provide an immediate hit of energy and fuel for the brain.

4.    Time Your Caffeine Intake Strategically

There is a large body of research supporting the effect of caffeine on both cognitive and physical performance. Whilst many consume coffee as soon as they get out of bed in the morning, we should be timing our intake of caffeine strategically to help us concentrate and maintain good energy levels throughout the day.

  • Consume 1-3mg caffeine per kilogram of body mass (70-210mg for a 70kg adult) an hour before you normally notice energy levels decline for you (for most this is around 2-3pm in the afternoon) or before important meetings or tasks.
    • Coffee is of course the most widely used, but the caffeine content of a cup of instant or barista-made coffee varies widely (60-400mg) depending on the bean used and how it is made, making it more difficult to dose correctly. Our advice would be to be consistent, if you usually have one particular coffee, from one particular place, continue to get that as you play around with the timing.
    • For reference, a 250ml can of Red Bull Zero provides 80mg caffeine and a No-Doz tablet contains 100mg caffeine.
  • Start with smaller doses (1mg per kilogram of body mass) and titrate upwards depending on how you feel. Always practice your caffeine strategy instead of trialling it for the first time before an important meeting as some individuals will be more caffeine sensitive than others and it can exacerbate anxiety or impair fine motor skills (e.g. you get shaky). Not something a manager wants when presenting to the CEO or a surgeon during the middle of an intricate procedure!

The Final word

Our choices when it comes to meals and snacks across the day play a significant role in our work performance. Timing your food intake optimally, utilising caffeine strategically, and ensuring you are including good sources of choline and B group vitamins from a range of different foods will ensure you are performing at your peak in the workplace and may just bring you one step closer to that promotion. For these tips and more, be sure to check out our website and online programs to help you perform at your peak at work, at home, in sport and in life.