What Does Food Have To Do With Leadership?

Oct 18, 2021 | Change, Confidence

Have you been feeling energized or sluggish lately?

Are you having positive connections with others, or are you wanting to be left alone?

Often we are so busy and focused on our daily tasks that we can miss some important information that affects our thinking, behavior and leadership capacities.

But if we pause and get curious, we might realize a connection between some recent choices we made and how we are showing up.

Recently I had a few glorious days in which the energy and emotional balance I felt seemed noticeably higher than usual. I woke up before the alarm and felt ready to tackle the day, my mind was sharp, and I was excited for the meetings I had on the calendar.

I’ve also had days of feeling sluggish, cranky, and even a little antisocial.

I could chalk either up to a good day or a bad mood. But when I get curious, I realized that something else was going on, including how I had recently been eating.

Food, energy and leadership

An important and often overlooked way to improve our energy, mood and brain is through the food we eat.

Food does more than feed the body. It feeds the brain which needs 20% of our total energy.

And the brain is constantly sorting out how best to use that energy. Lisa Feldman Barrett refers to it as our “body budget.”

In the task of directing our body budget, the brain is constantly trying to make predictions about how much energy it can spare.

For instance, imagine you need to lead a team meeting that requires some complex decision-making and difficult team dynamics are at play.

Now imagine that the night before you binged on your kid’s Halloween candy. You may not be thinking of that, but you are feeling sluggish, a little slow on the uptake and not very social.

What you do notice is that you’re dreading the meeting, wishing you could postpone except you have a deadline to meet.

You reluctantly go ahead and watch as the team falls into their typical conflict. You start thinking about ending the meeting, and trying to make the decisions yourself.

You may start to doubt yourself and your leadership abilities. But it might have less to do with your leadership ability and more to do with the candy you ate the night before.

Really? Yup – read on.

Brain-gut connection

In addition to its energy needs, the brain is actually connected to our gut via the vagus nerve, sometimes called our body’s “second brain.”

The vagus nerve is a superhighway of information between the brain and the stomach and intestines (and other organs). And 80% of its nerve fibers are used to send signals from the organs to the brain.

So the brain is constantly monitoring the state of the gut. And if the gut is off, our mood and behavior is affected.

Really? Check the research

More and more studies are showing how our diet affects our brain and behavior.

One neuroscience study found that when a person’s diet is poor, the vagus nerve carries signals of caution and protection from the gut to the brain – like not wanting to go to a team meeting or deal with a conflict, which would require energy.

Similarly, a more recent study showed that unhealthy late night snacks affected people at work the very next day. People who had snacked the night before were more likely to report physical symptoms like headache or digestive issues, and more likely to report negative feelings like guilt or shame. And they were more likely to report withdrawing or avoiding situations at work, and less likely to help colleagues beyond one’s own tasks responsibilities.

Additional studies show that poor diet also affects the brain’s ability to learn and store memories. Diets high in fat and refined sugar typical of the Western diet affected the brain’s structure and function in animals, particularly in areas related to memory and learning. And a recent study of older rats showed that highly processed foods led to a strong inflammatory response in the brain and signs of memory loss.

5 tips for a better gut & brain

Here are 5 basic tips to get you started in supporting a healthier gut and maintaining leadership capacities.

1. Create an intention. What’s your why for feeding your brain and your energy in a different way? (For more on supporting motivation and action, see last month’s post.)

2. Be curious about the food you eat and how it makes you feel. Start by simply noticing. Pay particular attention to thoughts and feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as energy levels. If you’re often sluggish, try to keep a journal to track the trends.

3. Avoid or limit food high in processed fat and sugar, like junk food and other processed food. Try replacing them with natural sources of fat (e.g. avocado and nuts) and sugar (e.g. fruit – dates are my favorite quick sweet treat).

4. Eat more veggies, fruit and fiber. Most of us could stand to up the intake of vegetables and fruit. Can you up the intake to 5 servings a day? Look for natural sources of fiber, which include many whole grains, vegetables and nuts. For a list, click this article.

5. Movement or exercise. A sedentary lifestyle does not help our digestion or mood. Be sure to make time for some light exercise or movement at least several times a week, or ideally, every day.

If you have digestive issues, don’t ignore them. If you’re having regular problems and discomfort, see a doctor. Gut problems affect your brain, your mood, and quality of life, so get some expert help.

Above all, remember that it isn’t about a diet of deprivation, but about being more mindful of what you’re sending to your gut and brain, and taking steps to improve your energy, mood and cognitive functioning!

Remember, as I like to tell my clients, self-care is brain care.

Photo by Nature Zen on Unsplash


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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