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Power Foods for the Workplace

By Chan Tran

It's that time of day and you're zoning out. Lethargy kicks in, your eyes glaze over and your head is dangerously close to the keyboard. You've hit the midday slump.

But you're not alone in this crash. People often begin craving coffee or snacks from the vending machine at around 2 or 3 p.m.

"They want a pick-me-up," said Sheah Rarback, registered dietitian and director of nutrition for the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami, "due to the plunge of energy level caused by our natural circadian rhythm, not getting a good night's sleep, skipping breakfast or eating a lunch of processed carbohydrates without added protein."

The secret is to power up ahead of time, lessening, or even preventing, the collapse. Still, all is not lost if you failed to fuel up; there also are immediate options. Just avoid grabbing sugary snacks that give you an initial rush but leave you more tired and hungry an hour later.

The best fare for preventing or defeating the afternoon skids combine fiber and protein, are low in fat and sugar, and provide less than 200 calories.

The plunge of energy [is] caused by our natural circadian rhythm, not getting a good night's sleep, skipping breakfast or eating a lunch of processed carbohydrates without added protein.

Sheah Rarback, registered dietitian and director of nutrition for the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami

Walnuts and Almonds

Stave off the blood sugar roller coaster ride by grabbing a healthy handful of almonds -- about 23 -- in the morning. Almonds help stabilize blood sugar levels for the rest of the day, according to a study by Purdue University researchers published in the January 2011 issue of "Nutrition and Metabolism."

And the next time you're under a deadline, try snacking on a handful of walnuts, or 12 to 14 walnut halves, to help improve your mood and brainpower. According to a 2007 University of Pittsburgh study, omega-3 fatty acids found in walnuts may boost brain areas that help bring mood into balance.

For a treat with a kick, toast 2 cups of walnuts in 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper in an oven set at 375 degrees F. The cayenne pepper adds heat and anti-cancer fighting properties.

Low-Fat Dairy

The milk sugar, or lactose, in low-fat dairy foods give you instant energy, while the high amount of protein helps fend off hunger afterward, says Susie Garcia, a registered dietitian based in Oakland, California.

For a healthy morning boost, add a dollop of yogurt to a bowl of oatmeal. The pairing of a prebiotic and probiotic food contributes to healthy digestion and immunity, and prevents bloating.

Make a habit of adding milk to your coffee. Or better yet, make low-fat yogurt or string cheese a part of your morning routine, because while those cups of Joe offer the caffeine boost to kick-start your day, regular consumption may affect bone health over time. According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, caffeine increases the amount of calcium lost in the urine.

Avocado and Olive Oil

An avocado a day keeps hunger pangs away, especially helpful when your midday funk includes the munchies. Heart-healthy monounsaturated fats in avocado and olive oil slow down the emptying of the stomach so you feel satisfied longer. And according to a study published in the October 2008 issue of "Cell Metabolism," the oleic acid from olive oil helps suppress hunger between meals.

"Oleic acid triggers a reaction in the body that keeps hunger at bay and activates an area in the brain that tells the body it is feeling full," said Rarback.

Avocados are also rich in potassium, which regulates kidney function and blood pressure, and folate, a B vitamin that helps the body produce and maintain new cells.

For a mid-morning or afternoon snack, halve a small avocado and remove the pit. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Hard-Boiled Egg

With just 80 calories, one protein-packed hard-boiled egg can curb your appetite for hours. In a study published in the June 2010 issue of "Appetite," participants reported higher levels of satiety and satisfaction three to four hours after eating a high-protein, low-carbohydrate breakfast than after a low-protein, high-carb meal.

"Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, so it provides longer satiety and sustained energy levels," said Garcia.

Convenient to eat, one hard-boiled egg takes about 10 minutes to make -- three minutes to achieve a hard boil, then seven minutes to sit covered. Boil a batch on Sunday and store them in the fridge for up to a week. When it's time to enjoy one, sprinkle it with paprika, pepper and salt, then squeeze a bit of lemon juice on it to taste.


After lunch, treat yourself to a cup of blueberries topped with low-fat whipped cream. At just 80 calories per cup and no fat, blueberries will sharpen your focus for the rest of the afternoon.

In a Tufts University study published in the January 2010 issue of "Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry," rats fed blueberries over a period of four months performed better on tests for memory and mental alertness. Blueberries are one of the most antioxidant-rich foods, explains Rarback. Their compounds fight free radical damage and trigger the growth of new brain cells.

Or you might consider switching your afternoon coffee to a glass of blueberry juice. In a study published in the April 2010 issue of the same journal, people with age-related memory problems performed better on learning and memory tests than the control group after drinking blueberry juice every day for two months.

Dark Chocolate

If your afternoon workday collapse is accompanied by stress, reach for a piece of dark chocolate, which triggers the release of endorphins that will pick up your mood. Serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter, is also affected by chocolate, Rarback says.

Rich in flavonoids, these pieces of decadence have antioxidant power that helps resist cell damage caused by free radicals, and according to a study published in the June 2010 issue of "BMC Medicine," dark chocolate may help lower blood pressure.

But snack in a serving-controlled manner. Limit yourself to only one or two dark chocolate drops or squares, advised Garcia.

Citrus Fruits

When you're about ready to doze off at your desk, smell an orange. Sniffing citrus scents can stimulate alertness, according to research published in the November 2003 issue of "Experimental Biology and Medicine."

Then eat the fruit. Its natural sugars are digested within 30 minutes, providing quick and enduring energy.

"Fruits contain fiber and other complex carbohydrates that provide more lasting energy than eating candy with no fiber," said Elizabeth Ward, registered dietitian and author of "MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better."

Furthermore, eating half of a grapefruit before a meal can help you lose weight, says a Scripps Clinic study published in the spring 2006 issue of "Journal of Medicinal Food."

Enjoy grapefruit by cutting it in half, scooping out the flesh and topping the grapefruit sections with a half-cup of cottage cheese.

Beat the Slump

Quick tips to help avoid the midday crash:

• Don't skip breakfast.

• Eat a well-portioned lunch. Not eating enough will leave you with few nutrients and little energy. Eating too much will make you bloated and sluggish.

• Get at least eight hours of sleep at night.

• Avoids sweets, which will cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash.

• Get up and move every hour to help the blood flow and reduce fatigue.

• Avoid foods that are high in sodium and fat. They can make you feel bloated.

• Exercise regularly to rev up your energy levels.

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