If you’re on vacation, no problem—chow down on whatever luxury food takes your fancy. You’ve earned it! And then you can savor a sweet afternoon nap. Those drifty, vacation dozes might be just about the best sleep there is.
But if you find yourself frequently struggling to stay focused and alert during a workday, yet you know you’re getting plenty of sleep at night–that’s frustrating. It turns out, what you’re eating may be part of the problem.
Pass on the gooey stuff
Fried dishes, cheeses, fatty meats or other high-fat foods contribute to daytime sleepiness and hamper your ability to focus and be productive. Researchers at Penn State’s College of Medicine in Hershey have found that a high-fat diet has not just a small but an acute effect on daytime alertness. They tested a group of normal sleepers ages 18-65—none of whom had sleep apnea—for four consecutive nights in a sleep lab, providing meals and assessing their alertness on the fourth day.
Higher carbohydrate consumption was associated with increased alertness, and high fat intake showed the opposite effect—basically, it made subjects feel sleepy and unfocused. Protein intake had no measurable effect on daytime alertness.
Could high-fat meals be why you’re feeling so fuzzy? It’s not only portion sizes or calorie counts, but meals’ nutritional composition, that affect your energy and awareness. In certain types of jobs, the researchers noted, a high-fat diet might even affect public safety—imagine you’re operating machinery or driving a train. (Or performing surgery!)
Balance is key. We all know there are trendy high-fat diets, low-fat diets, low-carb diets and more systems and nutritional “secrets” than you can shake a fork at these days. But to maintain normal alertness, everything in moderation probably makes the most sense. As Michael Pollan famously said about what to eat: “Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
What’s out of whack in many American diets is that as our culture grew more affluent and manufacturing more automated, most jobs became sedentary. A whopping 86% of American workers now sit at a desk or work at a computer all day. Yet too many of us continue to eat like old-time farmers who’ve been doing heavy labor—and average portions of everything, including fatty foods—have soared in size. Those farmers’ meat, butter and cream-laden meals probably burned off quickly after they returned to their chores.
So if you’re struggling to stay alert during the day, it might be worth an experiment. Reduce your fat intake considerably for a week or two and see how different you feel. You might find that an alert state of mind not only feels good, but like your new normal after a while. And by the time you hit your cozy natural mattress at night, you might be feeling so positive about the day that you’ll sleep more soundly, too.