by Sarah J.F. Braley | June 01, 2011

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is on a mission to change the way we eat -- at home, at school, in restaurants and during meetings. Our meals and snacks should be wholesome and nutritious, beautifully presented and delicious. And when the agenda calls for concentration and learning, we should eat foods that boost brainpower.

It's a concept that's quickly gaining traction here and abroad. The so-called "brain food" movement is based on a growing body of scientific evidence that mental factors like mood, motivation and intellectual performance are powerfully influenced by diet. This has clear implications for meetings, suggesting that F&B can play a role in forwarding a group's goals and agenda.

Many hotel companies not only are buying in, but revamping their banquet menus to make it easier for meeting planners to make smart choices. Scandic Hotels, which has 160 properties throughout Northern Europe, enlisted Oliver, host of ABC-TV's Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, to tweak its group offerings last year. "Soups with fresh, seasonal vegetables; salads with different dressings and fruit -- each menu is designed to be created by the guests to their individual taste," Oliver explains. "That encourages interactivity and communication, being together. Thus, a meeting can become even more productive."

Certain foods produce chemicals in the body that can be building blocks for neurotransmitters, explains Andrea Sullivan, president of BrainStrength Systems, who speaks on topics relating to the complexity of our gray matter. "Neurotransmitters are keys to how we're thinking, how we're feeling."
In other words, feeding the brain well throughout the day can lead to better learning. We've all been in midday sessions when our focus is shot and we struggle to absorb information. Planners can help eliminate that crash by careful menu selection to improve attendee concentration, ultimately enhancing the effectiveness and ROI of the meeting. And that means rethinking breakfast, lunch and breaks.

Drowsy vs. alert A number of our biological processes are at work throughout the day that can be enhanced or blocked by tweaks to what we eat, depending on the goal of the gathering.

For instance, according to Sullivan, studies of diabetics have shown that everyone benefits from steady blood-sugar levels, and eating complex carbohydrates (whole grains and many fresh fruits and vegetables, combined with protein) helps maintain those levels. When learning is paramount, so is the necessity of keeping glucose levels on an even keel. Sullivan cites a study by the University of Nottingham in the U.K., in which children who ate complex carbs (in the form of oatmeal) performed better on tests throughout the morning than their counterparts who were served a white-flour breakfast or no food at all.

Some ways to choose foods that support meeting goals:

• Balance blood sugar. Eating sugary foods and those made with white flour, like Danish and doughnuts, pumps blood-glucose levels up fast and high, followed by a huge drop below normal. "That's when you feel really drained and can't think straight," says Sullivan.

"People often don't get it that mental work requires energy, it uses up blood glucose," Sullivan explains. "Even though we're doing nothing 'physically,' our blood sugars drop and we feel listless. The key is to eat foods that enter the blood stream in a slower, stable way, and to eat a little bit about every three hours to maintain level blood sugar all day long."

• Rethink meats. Some foods, such as red meats and turkey, produce tryptophan in the brain. This is a building block for serotonin, which gives us a sense of calm and well-being -- great for after dinner and for team building, when attendees need to cooperate in a generous way, but a poor choice when the group still needs to learn and retain information.

Tryptophan also is a factor when you eat more carbohydrates than protein, says Sullivan. "But if you have more lean protein than carbohydrates, that will provide tyrosines, amino acids that serve as building blocks for dopamine and epinephrine, which are neurotransmitters that stimulate the brain and bring clarity of thought." (See page 36 for breakfast and lunch ideas to elevate energy.)

• Go easy on fats. Processing fatty foods taxes the digestion and makes us tired, so it helps to keep desserts light and small. A small portion of dark chocolate mousse, for example, is tasty and offers chocolate's ability to improve cognition and mood, among other benefits.