Can you barely make it through the door after a day at work without nose-diving into a bowl of hummus? You may think it’s boredom or stress levels making your appetite surge after an intense day in the office, but research shows that mental exhaustion can be just as appetite-inducing as physical work.
Studies, such as a paper from 2022 published in Current Biology, show when we’re focussing on a mentally straining task our brain not only gets fatigued but also becomes hungry.
Every cell in our body needs the energy to function, says Nuna Kamhawi, a registered nutritionist and coach – and that includes our brain.
‘Our digestive system, our muscles and even our brain is using up energy in those moments of complete relaxation. So it’s no surprise that when our organs work harder, they require more energy to function – and that’s not just true of our muscles when we exercise, but also of our brains when we go into deep focus.’
The same paper found that when we’re focused and concentrating on a mentally exhausting task (we hear you with those end-of-month reports) it can cause, potentially, a toxic by-product to build up in the front part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This by-product, called glutamate, Kamhawi explains, may ‘also be the reason for the signs of fatigue we experience after a long day of deep work.’
But, how come it makes us grab for a snack, to suppress our appetite? ‘Intense thinking requires more energy from calories, which is the reason why stress and anxiety can cause an increase in appetite in some individuals,’ says Kamhawi.
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And although the build-up of glutamate is more centred around fatigue, when we’re tired our stress hormones means our appetite will also change. So, if we’re regularly pulling late nights trying to meet deadlines, and you’re trying to quit sugar, how can you fuel your hungry brain on healthy options?
Kamhawi explains, ‘It’s really important to ensure you have a balanced diet, full of variety, colour, taste and textures so that you don’t miss out on any of the essential macro and micronutrients.’
Here are the three food groups you should include:
‘Our brain’s main source of fuel is glucose, which means it’s crucial to include ample carbohydrates in your diet,’ explains Kamhawi. Switch simple carbs like sugary snacks and white rice or bread for complex carbs like wholemeal bread, brown rice and brown pasta. Also, pair them with a good source of protein (meat, fish, beans, pulses) and healthy fats (like olive oil or avocado) to reduce the blood sugar spike and crash and have energy that lasts longer.
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‘This is a major building block of the brain and plays an important role in memory and cognition. To get your daily dose add oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel or fresh tuna to your diet, or other foods such as walnuts, chia seeds or food supplements,’ Kamhawi adds.
‘These protect the brain from oxidative stress, which causes cognitive decline. Stick to brightly coloured fruits and vegetables- the brighter the colour, the higher the concentration of antioxidants. Choose vegetables full of beta-carotene, like carrots, Lycopene is also found in tomatoes, while anthocyanins are found in blueberries,’ says Kamhawi.