Restaurants are one of the few industries that are a marathon and a sprint at the same time. Over my 15 years in the restaurant industry, I found managing performance for the restaurant is rare.
Many servers and chef’s will find less than ideal ways to manage their energy needs before, during, and after their work day. And that’s to be expected. Where else do you have to work in hot environments, work with the public, have a high level of accuracy and efficacy, manage ego and big personalities, and work in an industry that is completely unpredictable. Looking back at my career I am surprised that I didn’t pick up a smoking habit (since that is commonly the only way you can get breaks in the industry).
‘Working in a restaurant is like being an athlete without all the coaching, support, and management.’
I think it is about time that I start writing and helping those in the industry that supported me. Kinesiologist, human performance enthusiast, and restaurant employee advocate.
So where better to start that discussing nutrition and how we can manage our energy levels.
Before we get into this, I am going to note that I am not a dietitian. I am going to stay a little more macro in our nutrition discussion (not stepping outside my scope of practice.) But this should be a great place to start our discussion on prepping yourself for work in the kitchen or on the dining room floor. If you have specific medical conditions, dietary concerns, or looking to get a specific dietary plan, connect with a registered dietitian. You can find one in Ontario here: https://www.collegeofdietitians.org/home.aspx
Before we start discussing carbohydrates and their effect on restaurant work. We need to discuss a little thing called Glucose and its heartier friend glycogen.
Glucose: High Speed Energy Production.
As humans we need to eat food. On a macro scale we have carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in our daily diets. The first and foremost thing our body looks for when we eat is food that can be converted into a compound called glucose.
Glucose in its most simple definition is the sugar that can be carried through our blood stream into our cells. It is the most direct way for our cells to create energy.
Carbohydrates are the most readily available way to get glucose out of our food. Fats and Proteins can also be converted into glucose but I’m not going to get into that here. Simple carbohydrates can be broken down quickly into glucose which can then be delivered directly into the cells of our bodies via the blood stream and insulin.
Glucose is converted inside the cell into ATP. The process of turning glucose into ATP is called Glycolysis and I’m not going to waste your time going into this process so google it if you want to learn more about cell biochemistry. ATP is the energy unit that runs every process in our body. It’s essentially the energy currency needed to run a human.
When we have an abundance of glucose in our blood stream, we are able to store it in the form of glycogen. We hold onto glycogen and use it when we don’t have glucose in our blood stream for ATP production. Glycogen is primarily stored in our liver and skeletal muscle.
When we take in too much glucose or energy and we already have an abundance of glycogen, we will store this extra energy as adipose tissue or fat. More on this later.
Funnily enough there are different types of carbohydrates and some are better than others when it comes to long lasting energy. Some can turn quickly into glucose and some can be utilized to go a little bit longer.
Carbs, Carbs, CARBS, and carbs.
Carbs are the primary form of energy makers from our nutrition. Many people have no problem taking in the required number of carbs each day. But when we eat carbs we need to take note of two different kind of carbohydrates, simple and complex carbohydrates.
Simple Carbs: The basic white girl of energy management.
Carbs can be broken down into a category called monosaccharides. Monosaccharides are the simplest form of sugars. Glucose is a monosaccharide since it cannot be broken down into a smaller sugar. Fructose is a dietary simple sugar found mostly in plants. The third most common dietary sugar is galactose which is mostly found in animal milk sugars. Combining glucose and fructose together creates sucrose which is commonly found in table sugar.
Simple sugars are readily transferred into the blood stream. They spike blood sugar since they are so readily available but they are used up quickly or stored as fat.
Simple carbs are good for a high boost of energy but not here for the marathon that is restaurant work.
Complex Carbs: The reliable workhorse of energy production.
Complex carbohydrates are also known as polysaccharides. They contain many saccharide chains and in turn take longer to break down into glucose. In particular fiber and starch and known as complex carbohydrates. Fiber being one of the main components that take longer for complex carbs to digest.
The glycemic index.
All carbs have a different glycemic index. Foods that release a lot of sugar into our blood stream quickly are considered high glycemic index and foods that release slowly are considered low glycemic index.
When we are working in restaurants, we need foods that are going to release their sugars more slowly. This is going to give us a consistent blood sugar for a longer period of time. Supplying us with consistent energy. Hence, we want carbs that are lower on the glycemic index for restaurant work.
High and Low Glycemic index foods:
100% stone-ground whole wheat or pumpernickel bread
Oatmeal (rolled or steel-cut), oat bran, muesli
Whole Wheat Pasta, converted rice, barley, bulgar
Sweet potato, corn, yam, lima/butter beans, peas, legumes and lentils
Most fruits, non-starchy vegetables and carrots
White bread or bagel
Corn flakes, puffed rice, bran flakes, instant oatmeal
Shortgrain white rice, rice pasta, macaroni and cheese from mix
Russet potato, pumpkin
Pretzels, rice cakes, popcorn, saltine crackers
melons and pineapple
Eating for Work in a Restaurant
Pre-shift Carbohydrate Intake:
Hopefully this point you can understand why we need to have complex carbohydrates to get us through a 4, 6 or 8+ hour long shift. It’s going to give us the slow burn we need to keep working away.
But how much should we consume?
Generally, about 45 – 65% of our total daily caloric intake should be comprised of carbohydrates. What does that look like?
On average a person should consume around 2000 calories per day. This will vary if we are looking to gain or lose weight and will vary from person to person.
Want a good estimate of how much you need? Check out the my fitness pal app to see how many calories you should need to maintain, gain, or lose weight.
Once you know you know the total calories you need per day you can simply multiply that number by 0.45 – 0.65 to find out the calories from carbs. People who have physically demanding jobs are going to need more carbs compared to someone who is more sedentary.
Let’s look at an example:
Carl needs 2146 Calories per day to maintain his weight
2146 x 0.45 = 965.7 calories will need to come from carbohydrates for the day.
To convert calories into grams of carbs you just divide the number by 4. This then means:
965 / 4 = 241.25 grams of carbs per day.
Now obviously it may be difficult to eat 241.25 grams worth of carbs (1 medium sized white potato has 20 g of carbs) in one sitting but we do want the carbs we take in to give us energy for a long time.
Load up on complex carbohydrates. They will give you that slow burn, keep you feeling full longer and prevent crashes later on.
As said before the My Fitness Pal app will do all these calculation for you so you don’t need to be doing math outside of work.
Mid-shift carbohydrate intake:
Before you start screaming at me that you don’t have time to eat during work hear me out.
Obviously, you can’t eat in the middle of a high stress shift. Or at least you shouldn’t be. But most restaurants I have worked in do have a specific highs and lows to each shift. This can be seen between seating’s, shift changes, or possibly when it starts to slow down. This is vital to keep those energy levels up as your shift moves forward.
Think of it like those marathon runners you see on tv. They refuel at specific intervals keeping those energy levels high. Helping them perform their best. But it’s going to be even more important for you, because of one organ that uses a good few carbs.
The brain uses about 20% of our total energy requirements. And our brain pretty well solely runs on glucose, except during starvation.
Signs that that your blood sugar is dropping:
Moderate Low Blood Sugar:
• Inability to concentrate.
• Confusion and irritability.
• Slurred speech.
• Unsteadiness when standing or walking.
• Muscle twitching.
• Personality changes, such as anger or crying.
Mild Low Blood Sugar:
• Sweating (almost always present). Check for sweating on the back of your neck at your hairline.
• Nervousness, shakiness, and weakness.
• Extreme hunger and slight nausea.
• Dizziness and headache.
• Blurred vision.
• A fast heartbeat and feeling anxious.
I have seen and personally experienced these symptoms during a work shift. Like who hasn’t cried or became angry at work? Whenever my blood sugar drops I am guilty of becoming ‘Hangry’ and that is usually when I need to go eat something.
So take note of how you feel during work, it could be your blood sugar levels that is causing it.
Since a drop in blood sugar can be a drop in cognitive capability. What happens when our brain doesn’t stay on board with us?
We see more broken dishes and glassware.
We see more cuts, burns, trips, and falls.
We see our service staff being to forget parts of orders.
Service staff and chefs becoming irritable
So what should we do?
Keep your carbohydrate levels high to keep your proficiency levels high. Pack a snack with you for work. Smoothies are a great thing to put in the fridge and can be easily consumed.
Make sure your team members are getting enough carbohydrates. Take the time to fuel up your team members is much cheaper than injuries to your talented staff or broken equipment. An ounce of carbs is worth a pound of broken glassware.
· Possibly set up a refuel station between the kitchen and dining room
· Build refuel breaks into your work shifts
· Implement staff meals at the beginning or end of shifts. Get rid of food that you can’t sell anymore that way.
Post Shift Carbohydrate intake:
Generally, after an athletic feat, we look for how to refuel our bodies. Usually, we want to repair and reinforce our bodies with protein. But usually late at night there are fewer nutritious food items available. And we are usually so hungry we will eat anything, not matter how unhealthy it is.
It’s better to plan for the post work starvation by taking in a small amount of complex carbs to stave off the desperate “I will eat anything in site and eat too much of it feeling.” This will reduce those desperate hunger symptoms and allow our brain the energy to make better decisions.
Remember when I mentioned that when we have an abundance of calories or glucose in the blood we run the risk of storing that energy as fat. We are most likely to do it when we have not eaten anything and our brains are desperate for glucose. Prevent this with the above-mentioned technique.
Pack a quick carb refuel and make sure you follow it up with a proper meal at home.
Alcohol is made up of simple carbs so don’t try to refuel with a drink.
Order a protein rich staff meal to be ready after your work shift.
There you have it! Carbohydrates may be one of the little things we can do to make our workday at the restaurant a little bit more manageable.