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Rome wasn’t built in a day: Healthy eating has its benefits, but only if you stick with it

In 2014, Oxfam anointed the Netherlands “healthiest country in the world”. And while the title has since changed hands – to Singapore in 2015 – the nation never strays from the top ten ranking. This is in large part due to healthy eating.
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There’s a lot we can learn from the Dutch in terms of healthy eating, but is it easy to follow their example in the workplace? It’s a question we put to nutritionist Daniëlle de Roode after visiting her office in Voorschoten, the Netherlands.

Food is not just a means to survival, and helping people realise that is one of the reasons de Roode started Food Enough. Another reason? Being a lover of exercise, she was keenly aware of how her diet influenced her performance. That food could have such an impact on daily tasks intrigued her to the point of pursuing a career in nutrition – and now she dons a belt of experience ranging from working at various practices, to being a body support coach at the local gym.

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Throughout her journey, from studying to setting up company, she found that people didn’t realise the benefits certain foods offered. “We have a lot of high-quality food at affordable prices,” de Roode explained, “which makes it easier to have a balanced diet. But it doesn’t mean everyone knows eating the right things can increase your focus and productivity, enhance your mood and make you happier overall. A switch to healthy eating can also lead to better sleep and less stress.”

Certain foods, according to de Roode, such as fish and dairy, replenish your protein stores and moderate your body’s level of cortisol (stress hormones). It’s no wonder the Dutch are regularly cited as one of the happiest populations in the world – they are well-known for eating cheese and herring. The OECD’s latest report further emphasised this by lauding the importance of health to happiness, mentioning the Netherlands along the way.

So if healthy eating equates happy people, and happy people perform and feel better at work, then surely we should all look to improve our eating habits. De Roode mentioned though that a combination of fish and cheese was no miracle cure – if only things were that easy. What you drink, how and when you eat, all impact your health.

In the Netherlands, for example, most drink black coffee, which is fat-free – lattes are aptly named koffie verkeered. In other words, “wrong coffee”. Most lunches tend to be light and unlike most Europeans, they eat dinner at reasonably early. But it becomes difficult to take such intricacies into account when it comes to work, she stressed, no matter the country you live in.

“It’s all too easy to skip a day or two of healthy eating when you’re working,” she said. “You’ll want to treat yourself on bad days and will be tempted with sugary substances when you need to wake up or energise yourself last-minute before a meeting. But like with exercise, you’ll lose the progress you made, and it becomes easier to be led astray, especially in the first few days.”

It won’t be easy straight off the bat – not for those of us too lazy to cook after work – and the results aren’t immediate. But as de Roode said: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Like creating a schedule for tasks at work, structuring your eating habits will get you far. One of the biggest reasons for this is that we tend to think we know a lot about food – saying no to sugary products or processed food is all we need to take into account. It makes us feel like we can make food decisions on the fly, but making choices based on mood and convenience is too easy. We’ve all probably felt how difficult it can be, as Nike exclaims, to “just do it”.

It’s why the creation of a schedule and the concept of bringing food into work when you can is important,” she explained. “In the end, it’s best to not overly think about how you’re eating and what you’re drinking alongside it – stick with the basics. I say this because every person is different. We all have different metabolic rates, do various amounts of exercise and may even have vitamin deficiencies. Without knowing that specific person, it’s hard to create a definitive health plan. The basics garner good results for everyone though.

Stay hydrated and try not to skip mealsNormally I’d advise eating six times a day – three main meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and two to three healthy snacks in-between. Eat or drink something small after two hours of work – portion size is important. Also try not to ladle too much on your plate for main meals. This regime will ensure your blood sugar levels stay stable, and diminishes your need to snack.”

In terms of snacks and lunch, this is what de Roode would suggest:

– A piece of fruit;
– A boiled egg with a slice of meat (like ham or chicken breast);
– A bowl of uncooked food (think cherry tomatoes, carrots, celery, peppers and cucumber);
– A bowl of mixed nuts (like hazelnuts, almonds, Brazilian nuts of walnuts)
– A wholemeal sandwich containing a boiled egg and a slice of mean;
– A bowl of soup with vegetables (homemade versions are the best kind);
– A bowl of quark (like the kind made by Fuel) or yoghurt with a piece of fruit thrown into the mix.

“If you’re getting the right food stuffs (like wholemeal bread and cereal, fruit, vegetables and dairy products) then you’re already consciously taking care of your body and ensuring it functions at maximum capacity,” she said.

“Even if you can’t make a full change to your diet, there are little tweaks that will help. Eat raspberries and raisins (high in antioxidants), sunflower seeds help against fatigue and yes, sugary and processed food such be ignored when possible.”

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Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

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