It’s 2020. If you’re a career-minded finance professional in Singapore making new year’s resolutions, you may well be focused on how to improve your skills base or build a bigger professional network. But if you also want to be more productive in your current job, you may want to consider whether making changes to your diet could potentially help to better fuel you throughout each working day.
We asked several Singapore-based nutrition experts to provide some overall advice about the types of food that people in busy and stressful jobs may benefit from eating. Their top tips (which should be treated as general rather than personalised guidance) are outlined below. While you may not have the time or inclination to follow them all, you may decide to take on a few of the suggestions – ones you could realistically adhere to throughout 2020.
The nutrition specialists, all of whom have many banking-sector clients and some of whom have worked in finance or recruitment themselves, stress that lifestyle and other factors (e.g. medical conditions, sleeping habits, exercise regimes, and mental wellbeing) will affect your health and your ability to perform well at work. Nevertheless, it’s possible that your food choices could make a difference to how alert and energised you feel as you toil away in the office in 2020.
Follow the 80/20 rule, and ease into dietary changes
“Unless you have a specific medical problem, you could follow an 80/20 rule: be health conscious in your food choices 80% of the time, and more relaxed 20% of the time,” says Dr Menka Gupta, a medical doctor who worked in obstetrics and gynaecology in UK and Singapore hospitals before training as a nutritional therapist and functional medicine practitioner. “Some of my financial services clients want to make several big dietary changes right away,” says Lisa McConnell, a functional nutritional therapist at the Integrative Physio clinic. “But most of them are better off easing into these changes more slowly, so they become sustainable habits,” she adds. If you have (or suspect you have) any underlying health conditions, always consult a medical expert before making any major dietary changes.
Don’t skip lunch
Lunch-skipping is a common problem in the Singapore finance sector, according to nutritionists who work with bankers. Some finance professionals believe that taking a midday break will set back their work, and that it’s better to get by with a few afternoon snacks. In reality, this way of working ultimately makes you less efficient. “If you miss lunch, your blood sugar can drop, which can affect your decision-making capacity,” says Gupta. “A low blood-sugar level may also exacerbate some of the issues that bankers often suffer from – such as stress, depression, anxiety and low energy,” adds Gupta, who runs Singapore’s Nutra Nourish clinic.
Take a home-made lunch to work twice a week
If it’s unrealistic to bring a home-made lunch to work every day, you could aim to do it two or three times a week. “Many people in the Singapore CBD spend $12 on a salad, which is fine, but for less money you could prepare your own lunch,” says Gupta, adding that marinated wild salmon and a variety of vegetables (such as broccoli) are a good example of a healthy packed lunch. “Try out a few recipes for easy-to-prepare meals, so making them becomes a habit. Alongside some veg, your protein could just be hard-boiled eggs, or tinned tuna, or leftovers from the night before,” says Josephine Ng, a nutritional therapist, functional medicine practitioner, and founder of The Nutrition Mentor clinic.
Extend your overnight fast
Research suggests that so-called intermittent fasting (which allows for a substantial interval between meals) may potentially help with weight loss, and may help balance blood sugar, giving you more energy throughout the day. Most finance professionals won’t want to fast while working, so the best time to try it is overnight – i.e. extend the gap between dinner and breakfast. “Depending on your current eating habits, start at 10 and build to 14 hours,” says Stephanie Leung-Coleman, a nutritional therapist who founded Singapore’s Eatlifewell clinic and previously worked as a manager at American Express and Shell.
It’s not great to eat too late
Overnight fasting is obviously more difficult when you stay late in the office and eat dinner afterwards. “Bankers I know often skip a normal dinner time and tend to eat late, even at 10pm, so they go to bed on a full stomach,” says Ng. If your schedule allows, take a short break to eat dinner in the office (between 7pm and 7.30pm, for example) then finish things off once you’ve eaten, adds Ng, who previously covered equity markets for Reuters. You can either bring a packed dinner from home or buy one during your lunch break.
Change your definition of breakfast….
Bread or cereal-based breakfasts may not contain enough protein to fuel you throughout the working morning. “When you choose these kinds of breakfast, you start your day with a blood sugar spike. When your blood sugar then crashes, you'll be left with an energy crash too and you’ll search for something carb-heavy or sugary to get your energy back up,” says Riyana Rupani, a former financial analyst who’s now a nutritional therapist and founder of Healthy-ish & Happy. “It could be time to change your definition of breakfast,” adds Ng, who recommends making morning smoothies, bolstered by protein sources such as whey or pea protein, and ground nuts and seeds. “Putting a variety of vegetables (such as avocado, cucumber, celery, spinach or broccoli sprouts) and a single fruit serving into a smoothie frontloads different nutrients into your diet at the start of the day. A smoothie is easily digestible, and easy to prepare – which makes it great for busy finance professionals,” says McConnell.
…or tweak it
If you can’t kick your breakfast habits, try tweaking them. For example, replace white bread with a whole-grain or sourdough variety and put a protein source on it, such as nut butter, eggs or hummus, says Ng. If you’re a cereal fan, choose one which is free of sugar and dried fruits (or go for plain oats) and load it with extra seeds and nuts, she adds.
“Fatigue may be one of the first signs you aren’t drinking enough water. Even if you’re in an airconditioned office all day, you can potentially get dehydrated,” says Rupani.
Sneak in extra greens
“Try adding spirulina or green powder to your drinks – such as juices or smoothies – not as a substitute for fresh veg, but as an easy way to incorporate even more greens during your busy working day,” says Elika Tasker, who led the accounting and finance team at recruiters Randstad in Singapore before retraining as a health coach and setting up the Food Rebel cafe in the CBD.
Eat a rainbow
While it’s important to eat greens, you should also incorporate a wide array of colourful vegetables into your diet, says Leung-Coleman. Eating vegetables “across the colour spectrum” – reds, yellows and purples, for example – can help provide you with a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants to “nourish your body”, says nutritional therapist McConnell, who was previously a manager at Western Union.
Replace your sauces
If you eat at salad bars for lunch and don’t know exactly what’s in your salad dressing, try bringing in your own. McConnell recommends taking a small jar containing olive oil and green powder (or fresh spirulina) along with lime/lemon juice (or apple cider vinegar) and seeds. It may also be worth reducing your intake of the high-salt processed sauces that hawker centres use to flavour some of their meals. Reduced-salt tamari could be a bring-your-own replacement for soy sauce. “A Korean bibimbap, for example, has loads of veg and tastes great even without sauces,” says Gupta.
Balance your plate
Eating excess carbohydrates can eventually leave you feeling lethargic and can potentially contribute to weight gain. Unfortunately, busy finance professionals tend to eat convenient carb-heavy meals – filling up on rice, noodles or bread, says Rupani. “It’s essential to get all three macronutrients – protein, fats, and carbohydrates – on our plates to keep us fueled and nourished,” she adds. “A balanced meal is different for everyone, but generally speaking it means at least half a plate of vegetables, a good mix of protein and healthy fats, and a smaller amount of carbohydrates,” says Bonnie Rogers, a functional medicine coach at The Nutrition Clinic.
Slow down the sugar release
Having a good quality protein source with every meal – whether that’s meat or a vegetarian option such as soya or lentils – can help slow down the release of sugar into your blood and help reduce dips in energy, says Leung-Coleman. “By contrast, white rice, white noodles, white pasta and white bread are highly processed – and turn into sugar very quickly in your blood, leading to a roller coaster of rises and falls in energy, which isn’t great in a pressurised finance job,” says Leung-Coleman. Gupta recommends paying a small premium for brown or red rice, which release sugar slower than white rice and don’t cause the same blood sugar spikes. Whole rolled oats, quinoa, and buckwheat are among other alternatives for those who want to reduce the amount of white bread, rice and pasta they eat, says Tasker.
Cut back the processed snacks
Thinking of making a new year’s resolution to stop snacking on biscuits and other processed foods during the afternoon? If you eat more balanced lunches (with enough protein and veg, but not too many white carbs), you may not feel those familiar 3pm sugar cravings, which are typically caused by drops in blood sugar. “Your aim this year could be to eat meals that are based on wholefoods – unprocessed foods with recognisable ingredients that keep you feeling full and energised for at least four hours, reducing the need to snack,” says Tasker. “Processed foods also make your body work harder to digest them, which uses precious energy and steels nutrients your body could be utilising. Instead, stick to wholefoods that came from the land and sea rather than a factory,” says Rupani.
Feed your gut
Making the changes above won’t necessarily improve your energy during the working day, if you have an underlying health condition, such as poor gut function, says McConnell. Your ‘microbiome’, the vast ecosystem of bacteria and other organisms that live in your digestive pipes, is vital for breaking down food and toxins, making vitamins, and supporting the immune system. You can potentially help to keep your gut healthy by eating fermented foods that are rich in the probiotics your microbiome thrives on. “I’d recommend slowly adding fermented foods such as miso soup, tempeh, kimchi, and Greek yogurt. Add one of these items a day to help keep your microbiome healthy,” says Leung-Coleman.
Coffee: try curbing it a bit
Most banking professionals would balk at ditching coffee completely, and research suggests that the beverage does potentially have some health benefits if drunk in moderation. But drinking it regularly throughout the day, especially on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, can spike your blood-sugar, and may also contribute to you feeling more stressed as caffeine can trigger your adrenals to pump out more of the stress hormone cortisol, says McConnell. Gupta recommends replacing some of your daily coffees with caffeine-free herbal brews, such as mint or chamomile tea.
Rearrange your breaks
For some finance professionals, the afternoon coffee and biscuit break is as much about having a regular afternoon time-out ritual as it is about getting a caffeine and sugar hit. “Use your former coffee break to go for a quick walk instead, preferably into some green space or by the Singapore river. You may soon find that this becomes second nature,” says Tasker.
Photo by Roosa Kulju on Unsplash
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