We've all been there, grabbing that donut in the breakroom because we're too hungry to wait for lunch. But now scientists say that your empty stomach doesn't just affect your short-term decisions about eating. It can change your decisions about things that don't relate to food at all, too.

Hunger means different preferences

In a study led by Dr. Benjamin Vincent from the University of Dundee, participants had to answer questions about food, money and other rewards when they weren't hungry and again when they skipped a meal. The researchers found that, when people were hungry, they were more impatient and settled for smaller rewards they could get faster. Put another way, having an empty stomach changed their preferences, and they made non-food decisions differently than if they'd been able to chow.   

No food, multiple problems

While there's certainly more to making good decisions than feeding your face, the study suggests that being hungry might taint your choices at the office. For example, you might opt to skim an important review instead of really diving in, or you might be less personable during a meeting just so you can get in and get out.

So recognize that running out without breakfast or working straight through lunch on air influences more than just your energy, focus and productivity. Putting fuel in your tank ensures that your need for instant gratification doesn't mess with your ability to interact with others and work with a long-term mindset.

With this in mind, zooming out a bit, if you've got something really important that your entire team has to decide on, it's not just a courtesy to consider a catered lunch or have some snacks in a basket on the table. Bringing food to the conference table actually might mean a better outcome that's worth the expense.

But this ties closely to leadership and company culture. People run out without breakfast and skip lunch because they're scared of failing and being ostracized, because they can't get rid of the idea that more is better and winners don't stop. If you want your team to make good calls, you have to create an environment where they don't feel that pressure.

Another implication noted by the researchers is that poverty is a very real issue in the workforce. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, for instance, in 2018, 37.2 million Americans lived in food-insecure households, meaning that they didn't always have access to enough food to live an active, healthy life.

Most people don't want others to know they are struggling to get enough, so when someone on your team stars working impatiently under a short-term lens, you shouldn't assume it's totally intentional. It's important to touch base enough to know what those around you are dealing with and to try to eliminate as many sources of inequality as you can with good support resources and opportunities.

Related to the point above, general consumers experience the problem of food insecurity, too. Good leaders arguably ethically are called to avoid manipulating the problem. Vincent notes, for instance, that hunger can influence what people buy, so company tactics directed at people who are food insecure can have a real influence on their ability to break the poverty cycle. And in the same way, leaders shouldn't use the fact someone in the office is hungry to trick them into doing what they don't want.  

Looking at the study broadly, food isn't simply about surviving. It influences your ability to intelligently go for the jugular in the paths you take. Lose the idea that champions are exempt from basic biology so you--and everyone around you--don't have to look back at their choices with regret.

Published on: Sep 23, 2019
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