The link between what we eat and drink, and the way we subsequently behave has long been acknowledged, but leading experts at the University of Reading have been looking at how this might impact on the ability of business leaders to think clearly, deal with challenging situations and take important decisions.
“Exploring the link between nutrition and cognition is an excellent example of the kind of collaborative work that we champion at Reading,” says Adrian Williams, Professor of Pharmaceutics, and Research Dean for Health, overseeing health-related research at the University.
“Alongside fundamental research into the causes and nature of diseases, some unique innovations come when researchers from different fields work together. For example, bringing together the specific expertise of pharmacists with food and nutritional scientists and psychologists can result in new ways of thinking to tackle important health issues.”
A juice a day boosts alertness and concentration
A recent study looked into the impact of flavonoids – a group of plant pigments found in fruits and vegetables, including berries and citrus fruits – on mental functions.
Co-author of the study, Dr Daniel Lamport, from the University’s School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, believes: “The effect of flavonoids on cognition is an exciting area of research. Mounting evidence suggests they can boost brain power, particularly after repeated daily doses over several weeks and months.”
In two previous studies, conducted by the University’s School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences’ Nutritional Psychology Lab, both adults and children rated their positive mood as being significantly higher after consuming a blueberry drink.
“The results suggest,” says Dr Lamport, “eating or drinking flavonoid-rich fruit could be a great, healthy morning tonic – helping to maintain alertness and concentration at work.”
Research is still ongoing to determine the exact mechanisms by which flavonoids may exert effects on the brain, but improved blood flow in the brain and increasing the efficiency with which neurons transmit signals are strong candidates.
According to a number of studies on glucose enhancement of human memory, the brain relies on glucose as its primary fuel. Increasing the level of glucose circulating in our blood can actually boost cognitive functioning, a phenomenon known as the “glucose memory facilitation effect,” according to a 2011 study in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.
Nutritional optimisation is big business
In the same way that top sportspeople maintain a strict nutritional regime, innovative companies are starting to look at how they can enhance the performance of their top talent.
A study by the British Psychological Society revealed that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is related to greater happiness, life satisfaction and positivity, and provided evidence that eating more fruit and vegetables was related to greater curiosity and creativity. All of this could translate directly to higher productivity.
It’s also possible to see how, in a competitive environment, small improvements in a senior executive’s ability to present effectively, negotiate a deal, see an opportunity or resolve a challenging situation could be worth millions of pounds. So, ensuring that their top people are properly fed could yield a significant return on investment for enlightened companies.
The cost of health
Henley Business School is keeping a close eye on the results from the research, and has already begun to discuss how to apply the outcomes.
Professor Williams is keen to increase the collaboration and sees several ways in which business and health researchers can help each other.
“Having the expertise within Henley Business School as part of the University is hugely beneficial. It means our scientists can access some of the best methods and skills from business and social sciences, and our business academics benefit from the latest facilities and developments in the sciences.”
“A good example is the work of Dr Weizi (Vicky) Li, a lecturer in management information systems whose expertise is now being used in designing and rationalising hospital management systems and patient care pathways, in collaboration with the Royal Berkshire Hospital.”
“Reading has a strong track record in tackling big global problems and we’re continuing this with our health research strategy. Issues such as mental health, obesity and dementia cost tens of billions of pounds in the UK alone, and are becoming more of a problem in the developing world. We are well placed to make a big difference, both through our research and by training a new generation of professionals to work across the healthcare sector.”
Mark Swain, Director of Partnerships at Henley Business School, adds: “Well-run organisations already recognise the competitive benefits of ensuring that their top people have the right skills and are trained to perform at their best.”
“There is limited evidence that this is being extended to include nutritional planning, but being properly fuelled to perform well is something that individuals might consider, in the same way that top athletes map out their nutrition to help improve their performance.”
“It would be difficult to quantify the fiscal advantage, but in any commercial market it’s logical that those who perform best in areas such as presentation, negotiation, decision making and interpersonal relations will create a positive return on investment. Better nutrition may just give someone the edge over their competitors.”