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Helping Clients Beat the Post-Lunch Slump

By Lenora Dannelke

By 3 pm, an insidious menace infects the typical workplace, causing productivity to plummet. While OSHA can’t protect people from symptoms such as drowsiness, irritability, and mental fogginess, understanding the physiological dynamics of the postlunch slump can alleviate afternoon apathy.

“You have to look at two areas,” says Susan Kapun, MS, RD, LDN, food services director at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa. “The first is your internal, or circadian, clock that controls body temperature.” An afternoon drop in core temperature releases the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, creating a natural nap zone. Light can help suppress melatonin production, if it’s the right type. “Get out of fluorescent lighting and into the sunshine,” Kapun advises.

Next, an examination of eating habits may reveal that the seeds of a midday energy crisis are often planted in the morning. “Coffee doesn’t constitute breakfast, and a candy bar increases blood sugar and lets you crash later—even witha good breakfast,” Kapun continues. Switching to six small meals a day, or eating about every three hours, can help stabilize metabolism.

Of course, what people eat for lunch plays a significant role in how they feel afterward. “A healthy, well-balanced lunch can mean the difference in just getting through the afternoon hours at the office and hitting a home run for the team,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, RD, LD, CSSD, an American Dietetic Association spokesperson and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic. ”A good mix of complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats will help you have a super–high-energy afternoon.”

Two servings of carbohydrates (eg, fruit, milk, whole grain breads or crackers) to one serving of lean protein (3 oz of turkey, grilled chicken, lean beef, fish, or low-fat cheese), plus a cup of veggies (baby carrots; sliced cucumbers; tomatoes; celery; green, yellow, orange, or red peppers; broccoli; or cauliflower) provide optimal balance. “Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source, and if you do not have enough carbs, your energy levels may drop. Protein provides fuel for muscles as well as assistance with normal growth and repair of cells,” Jamieson-Petonic continues. 

Kapun adds that unlike simple carbohydrates—think vending machine cuisine—complex carbs prevent slumps because they take longer to digest, and protein-rich foods step up production of dopamine and norepinephrine, brain chemicals that increase alertness and the ability to concentrate.

To help them avoid energy-zapping dehydration, Jamieson-Petonic advises clients to observe her “20/20 Rule”: Drink at least 20 oz of water 20 minutes before a meal to increase hydration, as well as help control hunger. “Your body is at least 70% water, and if you are dehydrated, you can really feel run down,” she says.

Exercise provides another boost. If a lunchtime power-walk or run is unrealistic, encourage your clients to find modest alternatives. “Instead of e-mailing someone in another department, walk over to their desk. Or do some stretches,” says Kapun. “That increases oxygen and makes you feel awake and alert. Adrenaline stimulates the brain.”

By providing guidance on nutrition planning, RDs are their clients’ frontline defense in fighting afternoon fatigue. “I truly see myself as a health coach for my clients, guiding them on their own path to optimal wellness through good nutrition,” says Jamieson-Petonic. “Many times my clients want to eat healthier but may not know how to shop for these foods, how to store them, or how to prepare them in fun, tasty ways. That’s where I come in!”

— Lenora Dannelke, a freelance writer based in Allentown, Pa., covers food and travel for numerous publications.

Powerhouse Lunch Pick
• Whole wheat pita with tuna salad (water-packed tuna mixed with 1 T reduced-fat mayonnaise, onion, cherry tomatoes, and watercress)
• Cup of lentil soup
• Fresh fruit
• Yogurt with granola

— Provided by Susan Kapun, MS, RD, LDN