Software developers are not known for having the best nutrition. When it comes to development work, the stereotypical late night Red Bull-fueled coding binge is often not too far from the truth. It’s hard to imagine a hackathon without a stack of pizza boxes and a mountain of empty soda bottles. In addition, no good tech firm lets their kitchen run out of chips or Vitamin Water. Proper nutrition is, however, about more than just being thin; it’s about providing proper fuel for your brain so you can code smarter, faster, and better. In this post I’ll give you some anecdotal evidence about why nutrition matters, some resources on how to eat and train properly, and finally give you a list of 8 concrete benefits I’ve enjoyed since I started eating properly.
For over 3 years, I’ve been following a paleo diet along the lines of what Mark Sisson advocates in his blog, marksdailyapple.com. The benefits across all aspects of my life have been nothing short of incredible, and what has surprised me the most was the improvement in my mental performance. I started my diet the summer before my senior year of college. Suddenly I found myself able to finish work in 2 hours that would have previously taken 10 hours and multiple energy drinks. Later that summer, in a burst of effort that I would have considered impossible before, I built out a simple dating app called Grapevine during a 36 hour fast with no stimulants. By senior year my newfound clarity allowed me to simultaneously achieve one of my best academic semesters and land a prestigious job, all while living in a frat house.
Not convinced? Here are the 8 most important benefits I’ve noticed since switching over to the paleo diet:
1) Improves focus over long periods of time
Ask yourself this question – when’s the last time you honestly sat down and worked for 5 hours straight, without having to get yourself some caffeine or a snack? Your body is very good at breaking down simple carbohydrates, such as bread, sugar, or those chips you’re thinking of snacking on. When it breaks these foods down too quickly, your blood sugar spikes. After this spike, your blood sugar will return to normal. Unfortunately for your would-be six-pack, your body interprets this decrease in blood sugar as a hunger signal and causes you start to feel tired and hungry. You know that “2:30 feeling” that Five Hour Energy is always talking about? It is actually a direct symptom of your blood sugar dropping back to normal from that PB&J sandwich you had at 11:30. The 2:30 feeling saps your focus and productivity. You can either fix this feeling temporarily by reaching for a Five Hour Energy, or you can fix it permanently by going paleo.
2) Hunger stops being a distraction
When I was growing up, it became extremely difficult to focus when I was hungry. Not only that, I would become irritable in a manner reminiscent of the Snickers “you’re not you when you’re hungry” advertisements. One day about a month after I went paleo, I noticed around dinnertime that I wasn’t particularly hungry. This was surprising to me, because by the time 7pm rolled around I was always ravenously hungry. Feeling adventurous, I decided to just roll with it and see what happened. Pretty soon I hadn’t eaten for 24 hours and still felt perfectly normal. Ever since then I’ve noticed that hunger has stopped becoming agonizing; instead it’s more of a gentle reminder that I probably need to eat something in the near future. Now I can spend more of my effort focusing on my work and less trying to ignore painful hunger every few hours.
3) No need for energy drinks
Caffeine has its time and place, but caffeine late in the day is a terrible idea and starts a vicious cycle of dependency. You have a cup of coffee in the afternoon only to have trouble sleeping, so you have two cups of coffee the next day to keep yourself going, but then you have trouble sleeping again and the cycle repeats itself. Pretty soon you can’t get through the day without multiple Red Bulls. This may work for a while, but you’re not at peak performance when you’re depending on energy drinks to keep you going and eventually you’re going to crash.
4) No worrying about burning calories
The primitive “calories in, calories out” model of weight loss has been disproven time and again, but somehow gyms and the exercise industry in general have yet to catch up. Nutrition and stress hormones have every bit as much to do with weight loss and gain as caloric expenditure, which is why spending an hour a day on a treadmill is at best inefficient and at worst counterproductive. If you’re not getting the results you want from your daily treadmill workout or spin class, odds are you’re feeling stressed out about it, which in turn makes it less likely that you’re getting the results you want. Even if you’re doing well with your outdated “cardio” workout, wouldn’t you much rather be enjoying quality time with friends, loved ones, and/or Netflix? I got into the best shape of my life around 2 years ago and have been getting in progressively better shape ever since with approximately 20-30 minutes of exercise per week, often even less. I haven’t even touched an elliptical or treadmill in nearly 4 years. If you’re interested in learning more as to how this is possible and why this is the way to go, check out Body by Science by Doug McGuff.
5) Look good
Looking good not only has obvious benefits in your personal life, it can help your career as well. While it may seem irrational and politically incorrect, the fact of the matter is, humans are very visually oriented, and, for better or for worse, we make judgments about the health and competence of other humans based on our visual observations. In the wise words of Harvey Specter from the TV show Suits, “Doing good work isn’t the whole job. First impressions last; if you start behind the eight ball, you’ll never get in front.” Being in good shape may seem like a minor detail, but in can help you stand out in an interview, in a VC pitch, or in your day-to-day.
6) Fewer headaches
I used to get headaches almost on a daily basis before going paleo. I’m not entirely sure whether this was due to sugar crashes, mycotoxins, or something completely unrelated. Now, the only headaches I get are from the occasional late night out.
7) Less time being sick
Having a cold sucks. You spend a few days lying in bed feeling disgusting and then have a mountain of work to catch up on when you feel better. Thankfully, you can avoid particularly bad colds by eating properly – while I do still get a cough occasionally, I haven’t taken a single sick day since going paleo. That’s a far cry from my pre-paleo days, before going paleo I’d spent much of the previous 6 months on antibiotics to fight off chronic sinus issues.
8) More enjoyable life beyond work
Life is all about feedback loops and exponential growth – success breeds success. Succeeding in one area of your life helps the other areas of your life. You’ll work a lot better when the rest of your life is in order, whereas if you’re spending energy worrying about your sore throat or regretting that you can’t go out for drinks because you have to spend quality time with the elliptical, your performance will suffer. Paleo isn’t about renouncing your favorite foods and depriving yourself; if you’re paleo and feeling miserable, you’re doing it wrong. It’s about being able to get more out of life. It’s about being able to eat a late lunch when you’re in the zone without sacrificing your mental acuity. It’s about being able to stay up late enjoying the company of good people every once in a while without paying for it the next day. It’s about not skipping out on good times after work hours because you ‘have’ to go running.
Want to learn more? Dave Asprey has an excellent one-page explanation of the paleo diet on his blog The Bulletproof Executive. Marksdailyapple.com is an excellent resource that got me started, and Mark Sisson’s book The Primal Blueprint is an excellent introduction to how paleo works and what benefits you can expect. I intend to write a few more blog posts along the lines of nutrition for coding and mental performance in the near future, if you want to get updates you can follow me on Twitter (@code_barbarian) or Facebook. William Kelly (@idostartups) was my superstar editor for this post, thanks to him for all the help.