When we have a big presentation, an important event, or a stressful situation like a job interview on the day’s agenda, what we eat beforehand can make or break the experience. Did you ever hear that eating crap makes you feel like crap? It’s a cliché for a reason. When we don’t fuel ourselves right, our energy, mood, and focus take a nosedive. I help my nutrition clients set themselves up for success by helping them strategize what to eat — and what not to eat. Here are some of my tried-and-true dos and don’ts.
Why food matters
A balanced meal can help us remain on an even keel by promoting stable blood sugar. How? Let’s talk biochemistry for a quick second.
Carbohydrates (grains, fruit, starchy vegetables, lactose, etc.) raise our blood sugar, and protein and fat help buffer the breakdown of those carbs by slowing digestion, which helps your blood sugar stay stable for longer so you feel more energized and satisfied. Fiber (found in beans, whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts, etc.) also works to slow digestion.
When you eat a meal that provides a combination of protein, fat, and carbs (ideally, those higher-fiber complex carbs like beans, sweet potatoes, and whole grains, as opposed to their simple white-flour, sugary counterparts), you set yourself up well.
Don’t eat: a candy bar
You may have heard this a million times, but it bears repeating that eating a high-sugar item like a candy bar is going to set you up for a blood sugar crash-and-burn. What happens is that the body goes to work to quickly digest the carbs (sugar), which triggers a sharp insulin spike. Within an hour, you’re dropped sharply at the bottom of the roller coaster, feeling like you want to crawl in a hole and cry or go to sleep.The effect is even worse when you down a big hit of sugar on an empty stomach. Not conducive to feeling awesome.
You may have heard that dark chocolate has some brain-boosting properties and increases levels of mood-regulating brain chemical serotonin and has antioxidant benefits, but it’s no replacement for a balanced meal when you need to keep it together and present your best self. If you do want some chocolate, it’s best to have a small amount (think one or two squares) after a balanced meal or in the context of a snack that also provides some protein or fat.
Don’t eat: donuts, muffins, and pastries
This may seem obvious, but hitting up the bakery (take note if you crave baked goods when stressed) before your event is likely just going to make you feel crummy, both physically and mentally. Aside from the fact that your body is going to just burn right through those carbs in the sugar and white flour, your brain really needs some fat and protein to keep you firing on all cylinders. If you simply must have a croissant for breakfast before a big interview, go for plain instead of chocolate and pair it with a cappuccino for a little extra protein.
Don’t eat: sweet cereal with skim milk
I see clients make this mistake all the time: a healthy-sounding cereal with skim milk or almond milk. What’s the problem? Many wholesome cereals are secretly packed with sugar (sometimes masquerading under other names that sound more natural, like “brown rice syrup” or “evaporated cane juice”), which can wreak havoc on our energy levels.
Skim milk may sound virtuous, but even though it has some protein, it’s actually not your friend here, as your body basically burns right through the lactose in it. Without any fat, you’re not going to digest the meal as slowly and you’re less able to efficiently absorb the fat-soluble nutrients in your meal. Almond milk is even worse (even the unsweetened varieties) because it also lacks protein. Go for two-percent instead or opt for an unsweetened non-dairy milk with protein (try pea milk) or fat (like coconut milk).
Don’t eat: a bagel
It’s probably not news to you that bagels tend to be oversized carb orbs that pack plenty of calories but virtually nothing in the way of actual nutrition. Sure, they’re cheap and readily available, but a classic bagel and cream cheese won’t do you many favors.
To keep portions realistic, consider scooping out the inside or just eating half the bagel. Opting for whole wheat will give you more filling fiber for a similar calorie buck, and if you add a high-protein topping like an egg, cheese, or smoked salmon, it might actually keep you going for a few hours. Sneak in some produce by way of tomato slices.
Don’t eat: a granola bar
A granola bar may sound like a wholesome option, but most of what you’ll find is high in sugar and lacking in the fiber department. Yes, oats are a whole grain, but when you wrap them up in honey and syrups and throw in dried fruit (more carbs) and chocolate chips without any protein to round out this snack, you may as well have just eaten a candy bar.
If you’re trying to travel light and don’t want to think outside the bar box, look for a minimally processed brand with a short ingredients list and at least four grams each of protein and fiber with, ideally, less than five grams of sugar.
Don’t eat: a double-bacon burger and fries
Yes, fat slows digestion, which helps stabilize blood sugar, but the source of that fat can make a difference. When considering the pros and cons of a bacon cheeseburger, keep in mind that red meat like beef can be more difficult to digest, which can make you feel sluggish. All that sodium in bacon and salty fries can also make you feel dehydrated, which leads to may cause fatigue.
If it’s burger or bust, try a turkey burger for a leaner option that may be easier to digest, or skip the bacon if you just can’t say no to grass-fed beef (I’m with you). Skip the fries in favor of veggies for a boost of vitamins and minerals or enjoy your burger over a salad (sounds weird, but seriously delish).
Don’t eat: nothing
This might sound like a no-brainer, but you’d be amazed at how many people avoid eating before a big event, blaming nerves. Even if you’re majorly freaking out, getting something in your stomach will help you feel more together.
If this sounds familiar, reach for something small like a handful of almonds or shake up some protein powder with water. The last thing you want is to have a hanger meltdown or start feeling light-headed. Fainting is one way to make an impression, but likely not the one you want.
Do eat: oatmeal
I know, I know, another registered dietitian telling you to eat oatmeal. We wouldn’t make this stuff up, though! That bowl of mush is packed with fiber and brain-boosting B-vitamins and also happens to be a blank canvas for lots of other delicious — and, yes, nutritious — awesomeness. For a boost of healthy fat, fiber, and protein, add some nuts or a tablespoon of your favorite nut butter. Nut allergy? Try seeds or seed butter. A tablespoon of chia seeds, for example, adds four grams of fiber and about two grams of protein to the tune of about 60 calories.
Do eat: a vegetable omelet
For a stabilizing breakfast, brunch, or lunch option, go for a veggie-rich omelet or frittata. Heck, I even would eat this for dinner. Why it’s a good bet: you’ll enjoy the benefits of the protein and fat in the eggs (sub in some egg whites if you’re looking to keep saturated fat and cholesterol in check) plus the fiber and key vitamins and minerals in the vegetables. For a little something extra, a sprinkle of cheese goes a long way to up the flavor factor. You could also pair this with a simple side salad or some baked or roasted sweet potato.
Do eat: sweet potato toast
Trendy sweet potato toast is another example of #ClichedForAReason. For the uninitiated, it’s super-simple to make: slice up a sweet potato very thinly and pop into your toaster or toaster oven. It may take you a few spins to get it to the desired level of crispy cooked-ness, but totally worth it. Sweet potatoes are a great source of slow-burning complex carbs and provide a good amount of fiber. They also boast powerful antioxidants. To make it a balanced meal or substantial snack, top your toast with nut butter, avocado slices, or an egg.
Do eat: plain Greek yogurt
Because they’re strained, Greek and Icelandic yogurts are packed with even more satiating protein than regular yogurt. Go for plain to skip the sugar bomb and add your own flavor with berries, nuts or nut butter, chia seeds, or ground flax. These options all add fiber to help you stay full even longer. If you need an extra touch of sweetness, try a teaspoon of honey, maple syrup, or jam. Stirring in some cinnamon is also a delicious way to upgrade the experience.
Do eat: a grilled chicken salad
A salad with grilled chicken is a great option because it provides plenty of fiber from the veggies and protein. Not into chicken? You can get the same boost from fish, boiled eggs, and beans or tofu for vegetarian options. Adding other veggies (raw or cooked) adds even more staying power.
It’s also worth noting that greens and a lot of vegetables like cucumber, zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes also are packed with water and can help you stay hydrated and clear-headed. Skip the bottled dressing (even healthy options can be loaded with salt and sugar) and use vinegar and olive oil. You’ll get a nice hit of tartness from the vinegar while the oil provides fat to help the meal hold you over even longer.
Do eat: salmon and veggies
This fish-and-vegetable combo delivers on the protein and fiber front. Salmon also provides brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, which support efficient cognitive function. If you’re burnt out on salmon, you can also try tuna, mackerel, or sardines. If the idea of fish heads and bones freaks you out, lots of brands offer boneless, skinless fillets packed in oil or water. If you need some carbs to make the meal complete, go for beans, lentils, sweet potato, or a whole grain like quinoa or brown rice.
Do eat: a turkey sandwich
It’s easy to overlook the humble turkey sandwich, but it’s super-handy when you’re on the go or tight for time and need something reliable. A simple turkey on wheat bread provides a stabilizing balance of complex carbs and protein, and turkey is also a great source of tryptophan, an amino acid that’s key to efficient production of mood-regulating brain chemical serotonin.
Sneak in some veggies with lettuce and tomato slices. While processed meat like deli turkey is best kept to a once-in-a-while option, in a pinch, it can be a big help. And if you don’t dig turkey, try cooked chicken, roast beef, or go for a vegetarian option like a PB & J.
No matter what you eat, if you know that stress affects your appetite or digestion, take a few deep breaths (and a few sips of water) and remind yourself that you’re awesome and fully capable of dealing with what’s at hand. If it helps, writing down your accomplishments or qualifications or reaching out to a pal for a pep talk can help you foster that can-do mindset.