What to eat to beat stress and fuel productivity

Matt Holden
Smarter Writer

Matt Holden is the editor of The Age Good Cafe Guide

Matt Holden
Smarter Writer

Matt Holden is the editor of The Age Good Cafe Guide

Is the mad rush getting the better of you? Follow our expert guide on what to eat to lower your stress levels and get more out of each working day.

If you live with a small business owner (I do), and you can get them on the phone in the afternoon (I often can’t), you will have had this conversation before: “Yada yada yada … And I forgot to have lunch!”

And if you are a small business owner, you’ll know how it goes: Noon (“Hungry. Must have lunch soon.”); 1pm (“Hungrier. I’ll just finish this before I eat.”); 1.30pm (“Hungriest. Another half hour should do it.”); 3pm (“I forgot to have lunch!”)  The forgotten lunch quite possibly followed a rushed breakfast and a mid-morning snack of black coffee with two sugars, to go.

All in all, skimping on nutrition and skipping meals is not a great way to live, let alone work. Sooner or later, the impacts of ditching a daily diet of healthy, energy rich foods will show up in your stress levels and your ability to get things done, properly. 

Cut pineapple top on white slats

Good food, good work

In case the obvious needs to be stated, experts agree good food equals good work. Dietitian and author Kara Landau from Corporate Nutrition Melbourne says, “Eating a healthy diet has benefits ranging from the immediate effects of feeling energised, enhancing concentration and helping in managing your weight, to the deeper and longer-term effects of preventing lifestyle diseases and mental health problems.”

A nutritious diet will help make focusing at work easier, and leave you feeling less irritable – both valuable when working in a group or stressful environment, such as running your own business. “A healthy diet leads to greater productivity,” Kara Landau says. 

Breakfast, the best start

We all know that breakfast is important, but many of us still skip it in the rush to get going. But as the Dietitians Association of Australia points out, eating a good breakfast has a range of advantages that can simply not be underestimated.

  1. A healthy breakfast fuels you with carbohydrates that give you energy for the day ahead
  2. The right foods at breakfast helps your body absorb other nutrients
  3. Breakfast increases your concentration by feeding your brain as well as your body
  4. Your morning meal fills you with energy-rich food that makes it easier to resist poor snack choices later in the day
Office breakfast staples

A healthy breakfast includes foods that are high in fibre, low in saturated fat and rich in vitamins and minerals. If you eat breakfast in an office environment, keep these foods on hand:

  • low-fat yoghurt – look for those with live cultures, and make sure sugar is way down the list of ingredients
  • reduced-fat cheese
  • a loaf of whole grain bread
  • nuts – cashews are high in protein, and almonds are a good source of calcium
  • fruit – whole fresh fruit is much more nutritious than tinned fruit or fruit juice
  • tinned baked beans

Too busy to eat

We don’t spend all our days within reach of the office kitchen. If you’re out making sales calls or meeting clients, you need to carry food with you to keep yourself going.

Kara Landau, who also blogs as the Travelling Dietitian, says that with a travel-size cooler bag, such as the Fridge To Go, you can make sure you’re well-supplied with food for a day on the road: “You can take healthy food with you for a long day, and keep it fresh.” 

Good food for the road

For quick snacks, Landau suggests mixed nuts or natural snack bars: but make sure they don’t contain artificial sweeteners, which have been shown to have a negative effect on digestive health.

Other foods that are good to take on the road include:

  • single serve Greek yoghurt –don’t forget to pack a spoon!
  • left-over lean protein and veggie stir-fries
  • fruit – apples (low GI and a good source of fibre), bananas and apricots (rich in potassium, which helps beat fatigue), and berries, which are high in fibre and relatively low in sugar

Eat to keep going

When it’s all ‘go-go-go’ in the office, warehouse or shop front, energy levels needs to be maintained to get you through. Landau recommends eating low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates with lean protein sources and healthy fats: “With foods such as these you’ll be able to keep your energy levels stable and your appetite regulated.”

Low GI foods help keep blood glucose levels even, providing sustained energy rather than the spikes and crashes you get by reaching for the lolly jar: important when you’re going from meeting to meeting or juggling a never-ending series of tasks.

Good food for an energy boost

Meals and snacks need to be selected carefully to offer sustained energy release instead of energy spikes.

  • Greek yoghurt with crushed nuts and a piece of fresh fruit
  • a high-fibre wrap filled with salad and chicken breast
  • a green salad topped with left-over roasted vegetables, tuna, and a sprinkling of seeds or nuts
  • a slice of whole grain bread topped with avocado and feta 

Eat to beat stress


Sometimes it feels like the whole enterprise depends on you – that’s part and parcel of being a small business owner, and stress is almost inevitable. But eating well can help minimise it. Stress has an inflammatory effect on the body, says Kara Landau, and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation. The National Heart Foundation recommends getting omega-3 fatty acids from a range of foods, including walnuts and soy and linseed bread; and animal products such as eggs, chicken and beef, as well as oily fish and seafood.

Omega-3 rich go-tos

  • salmon and barramundi
  • algae-based supplements
  • eggs
  • walnuts

Other stress-busting foods include probiotic- and prebiotic-rich Greek yoghurt, kefir (a cultured milk drink) and legumes such as lentils and chickpeas. Bromelain-rich pineapple and dark-coloured vegetables (leafy greens such as spinach and kale, as well as carrots and beetroot) are antioxidant powerhouses, essential for reducing inflammation and keeping your body in top form, Landau says.

Vitamin D also helps reduce stress: so make sure you get a little sun each day. A recent study at the University of Edinburgh highlighted the stress-reducing effects of moderate exposure to sunlight. 


  1. Choose what you’re going to eat before you feel hungry. If you leave it to the last minute it’s all too easy to go for the easiest and probably least healthy option. 
  2. Give yourself an opportunity to snack better. Keep nuts and fruit on your desk in plain sight, and rid your top drawer of sugar and salt-laden temptations. 


  1. Don’t skip breakfast. Ever. It’s the one meal you have the most control of and it sets you up for the rest of the day.
  2. Avoid going too long without food. Healthy snacks between bigger meals keep your blood sugar levels from spiking and dropping, which takes its toll on your mood and ability to focus.   

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