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Brain-friendly food choices may ease burnout symptoms

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Today’s rapidly changing and demanding work life raises concerns about mental well-being. While the risk of work-related burnout grows, it may have a negative impact on people’s health and ability to work.

Burnout is certainly an undesirable mental condition. It commonly results, at least partly, from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Severe burnout may influence work ability, and eventually even lead to extended absence from work.

The brain-friendly eating pattern

Recent studies suggest that regular physical exercise and healthy eating habits may help prevent burnout. On the other hand, individuals with burnout symptoms are more prone to emotional eating and unhealthy dietary choices.

The brain-friendly dietary pattern was developed in the BRAVE intervention, which was conducted by Fazer, Nokia, Nightingale Health and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. It studied the effects of healthy dietary choices on metabolic health and cognitive performance.

The brain-friendly dietary pattern model was then used to evaluate the association between diet and work-related burnout in a later study, called PORTAAT (PORi To Aid Against Threads).

The PORTAAT study was conducted among the employees of the city of Pori in Southwestern Finland in 2014. The study population included representatives from various professions: librarians, museum employees, groundkeepers, computer workers, social workers, nurses, physicians, administrative officials, and general office staff.

The participants reported what and when they ate for a week. The reporting was based on a 45-item food frequency questionnaire (FFQ). The main food groups in the FFQ were categorized into brain-friendly and brain unfriendly foods, based on the current scientific knowledge of the connection between diet and cognitive health. Brain-friendly food items included foods such as low-fat dairy produce, vegetables, fruit and berries, plant-based foods, and white meat.

Brain-friendly eating reduced burnout symptoms

Burnout is characterized by mood changes: depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress and sleep disturbances. These symptoms can be evaluated with standardised questionnaires such as the Bergen Burnout Indicator (BBI), which is widely used in the Nordic countries.

The PORTAAT study showed a connection between the consumption of brain-friendly foods and the individual’s BBI score. Those who consumed brain-friendly foods less frequently scored higher in the BBI, suggesting they had more burnout-related symptoms. Those who ate brain-friendly foods more often had lower BBI scores – and less burnout symptoms.

The participants of the study also reported the consumption of the foods that were categorized as unhealthy for the brain: red meat and sausages, sweet snacks and bakery products, sugary drinks and full-fat dairy products. None of these food items was individually associated with the BBI score.

To conclude, the PORTAAT study suggested that the frequent consumption of brain-friendly foods is connected to lower burnout symptoms. This brings attention to the importance of a diverse and healthy diet in overall health and well-being, but also on managing work-related burnout.

Citation: Penttinen, M.A.; Virtanen, J.; Laaksonen, M.; Erkkola, M.; Vepsäläinen, H.; Kautiainen, H.; Korhonen, P. The Association between Healthy Diet and Burnout Symptoms among Finnish Municipal Employees. Nutrients 2021, 13, 2393.

Healthy, brain-friendly food groups

  • Fat free milk and sour milk, low-fat cheese (fat <20%), low-fat (<1%) unsweetened yoghurts
  • Unflavoured nuts, seeds and almonds
  • Legumes (peas, lentils, beans)
  • Fresh Vegetables
  • Fresh Fruit and berries
  • Whole grain pasta and rice, rye bread, rye crisp bread, breakfast cereal, muesli, porridge,
  • Fish and fish dishes
  • Margarines and oils (cooking, bread spread, salad dressing)
  • Cooked vegetables
  • Eggs
  • White meat

Unhealthy, brain-unfriendly food groups

  • Red meat, sausages, red cold meat
  • Juices and beverages sweetened with sugar
  • Savoury bakery products (pies and pastries, potato chips and nachos, popcorn, salty nuts)
  • Sweet bakery products (buns, pies, cookies, cakes), milk chocolate, sweets
  • Alcohol
  • High-fat dairy products: full fat milk and sour milk, full-fat cheese (fat>20%), butter, butter-oil spreads (fat>80%)