Energy and Thinking

Below is a quote from one of my favourite scientists, Robert Sapolsky.

“You have two humans, and they are taking part in some human ritual. They are sitting there silently at a table. They make no eye contact; they’re still, except every now and then one of them does nothing more taxing than lifting an arm and pushing a little piece of wood.

And if it’s the right wood and the right chess grand masters in the middle of a tournament, they are going through 6,000 to 7,000 calories a day thinking, turning on a massive physiological stress response simply with thought and doing the same thing with their bodies as if they were some baboon who has just ripped open the stomach of their worst rival, and it’s all with thought, and memories and emotions. And suddenly we’re in the realm of taking just plain old nuts and bolts physiology and using it in ways that are unrecognizable.”

When most people think of using energy, they think of going for a run or going to the gym. Energy used for thinking rarely comes into the equation.

Regularly people will mention that they have decided to cut back on what they are eating because they haven’t been making it to the gym and have been more sedentary. When I ask why this has happened, invariably it is because work has now become busy. The intensity has increased, the hours have increased, the amount of focus has now increased. Despite not going to the gym they are now working 10-12 hour days. And because of this, they think they should eat less.

I saw speaking to a client about this last week. She said that she has been much busier lately. She also has started to notice that she would be getting cold hands and feet again. She would be doing nothing but sitting at her laptop and within an hour or two she was getting cold extremities.

Cold hands and feet are a sure sign of low energy. When energy is low, your body turns on stress hormones. One of these hormones is adrenaline and it pulls blood away from the extremities and moves them to the big muscles, heart, lungs and brain. Perfect as part of the fight and flight mechanism, not great for health if it’s being turned on while working on your laptop.

But she was not just ‘sitting at her laptop’ as she had put it. She was working incredibly hard on a handful of different projects that were all really important. She would be laser focused on what she was doing; writing copy, responding to emails, updating websites, reading contracts, etc. This wasn’t light work and she was working for hours solidly without a break in concentration. While she enjoys working in this hyper-focused manner, there is no let up for her brain while in this mode. And there is also no let up in the energy that it requires.

I am a big one for people meeting their metabolic demands. You need to give your body the energy it needs to do the tasks that are being asked of it. For most of the clients I see, this means encouraging them to eat more, especially during times of mental stress.

At a basic level, energy is energy and something is better than nothing. But once you get past the stage of just remembering to eat ‘something’ then it pays to eat the foods that are best for supporting you. This will differ from person to person but I find carbohydrates like root vegetables and fruit to be great for sustained energy. Having these alongside protein helps to keep things balanced and supports energy longevity (not to mention the almost infinite amount of other functions that protein is involved in).

The other suggestion I would make is to do with meal timings. It is easy when you are busy to start work , blink and suddenly realise it is 2pm. You’ve been so absorbed with what you are doing that time has sped by. Unfortunately you have forgotten to eat and by the time you finally do have something it is 5-7 hours since your last meal.

This really should be avoided, as most people cannot go for this length of time without running out of energy. Be organised and make sure that you have snacks prepared because if you don’t it is likely that you won’t eat. You’ll realise that you are hungry, decide you will go and get something from the shops in a minute when you finish this one thing…and two hours later you are still working. Prepare everything in advance and when you need to eat, it is much easier to make it happen.

If you are in the habit of associating ‘burning calories’ with ‘exercise’ then I would suggest broadening your definition. Thinking accounts for a huge amount of your daily energy usage; your job may not be as taxing as a grand chess master in the midst of a game but you are probably using a lot more than you think you are. Meet these demands and you’ll keep your health during this stressful time. Fail to meet them and you’ll feel run over when the intensity finally eases up.

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Chris Sandel is the founder of He is a nutritionist, working with clients on a one-on-one basis, as well as creating online trainings and products about health and nutrition. He is the author of The Health Trap: Why "Healthy" Eating Isn't Always Healthy which is available on Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Chris has three free emails series. One is on how to quit dieting. One is on simple tests you can do at home. And the other is his take on the world's healthiest foods.

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