My advice for those looking to have an energised and productive afternoon

Apparently, it’s 30 years ago that Marks and Spencer (a UK-based food, clothing and home goods retailer) started selling pre-prepared sandwiches. Other retail outlets followed suit, and the end result is that sandwiches now are the prime lunch fodder for workers up and down the land. But do they represent prime fuel for those with jobs to do? Regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t think so.

Sandwiches may be tasty (often) and convenient, but the problem for me is that they’re based on bread. To my mind, there are two fundamental issues with this food.

The first is that bread, even wholemeal bread, tends to release sugar relatively quickly into the bloodstream. The peak of sugar this produces can provoke a flood of insulin from the pancreas. This works to lower blood sugar levels, but a surge of this hormone can lead to lower-than-normal levels of sugar. As a result, brain and body energy levels can flag in the mid-late afternoon. And this tends to coincide with a natural lull in the body’s alertness and energy levels at this time. The end result is commonly reduced effectiveness. Some can struggle to even stay awake.

Another symptom of low blood sugar is hunger – usually for sugary foods such as chocolate or confectionery. The reason that some find themselves irresistibly drawn to such foods in the mid-late afternoon seems often linked to the sandwich they eat at lunch.

That surge of insulin after a sandwich has long-term implications too, as excesses of insulin predispose to a range of issues including weight gain, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The odd sarnie for lunch is unlikely to be too much of a issue. But the reality is that many individuals eat this food lunch after lunch, week after week and month after month… As a result, problems can mount up over time.

The other major problem with bread is that wheat – its usual major constituent – is a common cause of food sensitivity. Wheat sensitivity can manifest in any number of ways but perhaps the two most common manifestations are abdominal bloating/discomfort (wheat is a common provoking factor in irritable bowel syndrome, in my experience) and fatigue. For many people, eating wheat sucks the life out of them.

There’s not been any research, to my knowledge, on the impact of sandwich-eating at lunch on productivity. Nevertheless, my experience with countless individuals leads me to conclude that if someone is aiming to have a productive, energised afternoon, sandwiches make a far from ideal lunchtime food.

Alternatives include a hot ‘primal’ meal (e.g. meat or fish plus vegetables), salad or soup (preferably with meat in, to add sustenance and nutritional value).

I’ve met a lot of people who initially balk at the idea of not eating sandwiches at lunch. The usual problem here relates to hunger: many people allow themselves to get starving hungry before lunch, at which point eating bread becomes almost irresistible. Those wishing to give sandwiches a miss at lunch generally do well to make sure they are not famished at this time. A decent breakfast, perhaps with some nuts in the mid-late morning, will usually do the trick in this respect.

Another common complaint is that soup or salad will not ‘last’ until supper. The truth is, sandwiches do not tend to last either. However, the fact that soup and/or salad will only quell hunger until the late afternoon or early evening need not be an issue – there’s no reason to avoid a healthy snack at this time to tide someone over to supper.

I’ve witnessed over time what happens when individuals ditch sandwiches for lunch and switch to something more ‘primal’: almost without exception they note tangible and lasting improvement in their energy and effectiveness, in the workplace or out.

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15 Responses to My advice for those looking to have an energised and productive afternoon

  1. Tim 26 April 2010 at 9:29 am #

    I gave up bread / wheat six months ago. One of the ‘problems’ with not having sandwiches is finding a suitably portable and convenient alternative. I usually go for either hard-boiled eggs or choritzo slices – something like that.

  2. Earl Cannonbear 26 April 2010 at 6:52 pm #

    It took about a week but now I have conditioned myself to not need to eat at all during the morning and afternoon. When I get home I have a substantial primal meal with lots of fat, protein and vegetables. It works great.

  3. Mark 27 April 2010 at 12:20 am #

    I am not clear whether there are health problems for those of us who do not experience the symptoms Dr Briffa refers to after eating wheat?

    I seem to be able to tolerate wheat fairly well. I do not seem suffer an energy slump or bloating and items like bread or pasta don’t seem to suck the life out of me.

    So my question to Dr Briffa is, would you modify your advice for people in this position? Would you say, go ahead and enjoy sandwiches etc.? Is the absence of any noticeable symptoms a sign that (wheat) bread is OK to eat on a regular basis? Or do you mean the eating of wheat is likely to be storing up trouble for most people, behind the scenes, whether they are currently noticing problems or not, that will emerge as a health problem later in life?

  4. Bill 30 April 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    John – you are bang on. Carbs = “post prandial torpor”..

    Protein and fats for lunch to rev up your motor – some meat and veg/salad means sustained glucose levels – “slow carbs”

    On insulin spikes…

    I used to breakfast on a banana (!), red grape juice (!!!) and a handful of almonds… within 2 hrs I was starving, and could not make it to lunch. I tend to go for mixed nuts and berries with sowe full fat goat’s yoghurt these days – and that sustains well into the lunch hour.

  5. Stephen 30 April 2010 at 7:39 pm #

    I met Dr John about 2 years ago and he advsed me to take drop the wheat. Taking bread and substantially all wheat out of my diet has had a profound impact on my life. I bounce around on an even keel all day and snack on nuts in between meals when necessary. Oh, and I’ve lost 40lbs without trying and am now a very manageable 13 stone.

    One key point is the midday meal. I work in a busy environment where stopping for anything is frowned upon. So I make myself stop. I find a cafe or small, cheap restaurant, have a salad or omelette and go back to work really refreshed for the food and, equally important, the 30 minute break.

    By the way, on the occasions I do have to eat a sandwich for lack of any alternative, I tend to literally fall asleep for 15 minutes, much to the amusement of my colleagues!

  6. Chris Sewell 30 April 2010 at 7:51 pm #

    Moderation is the key – I eat bread but mainly stick to weekends. During the week it is soup – but I have loads of it because it is healthy – (home-made not tinned [so I know what has gone in it]). Low sugar – low saturated fat – but again the point is everything in moderation.

  7. Nancy 30 April 2010 at 8:06 pm #

    I gave up wheat a few months ago and feel infinitely better! A few weeks ago I decided to try eating a meal with Dreamfield’s pasta one evening (2 oz portion) and I felt fine, so I think I can have it every once in awhile and will be okay. It was the daily dose that was causing problems for me, which was mostly in the form of sandwiches. Most of the time, I don’t miss eating wheat. It was surprisingly easy to make that adjustment.

  8. Diana Nixon 30 April 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    I’m very glad to see the issue of wheat at lunchtime flagged up like this, as well as the general health issues surrounding wheat.
    As a kinesiologist doing a lot of food tolerance testing, I find wheat the most common cause of digestive trouble, with dairy a close second. I believe these two are the main culprits in IBS and can quite often occur together in the same person.

    I have a problem with wheat myself and when I reluctantly gave it up a couple of years ago, not only did the bloating go away almost immediately, but my overall energy levels improved greatly. What I hadn’t expected was the improvement in general aches and pains, especially morning stiffness in my hands. I realised that the wheat had been causing inflammation in my system and some puffiness of face, knees and fingers all of which looked noticeably better after a couple of weeks. I believe this would have led to arthritis in time.

    I’ve also had people report that after giving up wheat their constipation was resolved, and headaches gone.

    The afternoon energy slump and blood sugar levels are one thing, but I believe the very high gluten content of modern wheat is the culprit for the other symptoms. I find I can better tolerate a small amount of wheat in Italy where they use Italian wheat which is processed quite differently and has a lower gluten content. I’ve also heard people say the same of French and Polish bread when made with non-imported flour. I’d be interested in other people’s experience of this, as I really do miss toast!

  9. Stephen 30 April 2010 at 11:21 pm #

    I’m interested in your comments Diana. I have a long held theory that Italians and French, in particular, understand that bread needs to “prove” overnight before it is baked. In this fast food country we use accelerators to prove the bread much quicker and I strongly believe that this helps to keep the gluten levels in processed bread very high.

    I have also found spelt bread to be a wonderful alternative with no gluten and no yeast used. Not easy to find and very difficult to make without it turning out as concrete!

  10. donald 30 April 2010 at 11:29 pm #

    My understanding is the elevated gluten in “packet” bread has a lot to do with the chorleywood process
    I now find I am fine consuming small amounts of bread made in the traditional style by artisan bakers , though kids sometimes prefer the “genius” wheat free loaf obtainable in some supermarkets , one of the first wheat free loaves that does not taste like stale cardboard !

  11. Helen 1 May 2010 at 8:19 am #

    A lunch that works for me is chicken, broccoli and brown rice (with a dash of soy sauce). I know it has a carb content, but it is slow release, and the meal can be made up in advance and taken in to work. I actually split my lunch into 2 – so I have half at around 11am, to save me from eating chocolate at that time, and then I have the rest at about 2pm – which keeps me going through the afternoon, prevents me from hoovering up my kids’ leftovers at 5pm and, with a healthy snack at around 5.30pm gets me through until I eat a primal meal later in the evening.

  12. Adrian 1 May 2010 at 9:13 pm #

    My wife had problems with the bloating associated with eating bread and I often found it difficult to keep awake if I’ve had a sandwich for lunch or a snack of toast.

    I’ve been baking the bread at home for about 10 years using a bread machine and the typical ingredients of butter, sugar, water, flour, dried yeast and salt. However I’ve now started making sour dough bread whose ingredients are just flour and water. The sour dough process involves making a starter over several days that catches wild yeast from the atmosphere. This can take a week or so but once made only needs feeding once a week if kept in the fridge. The resulting bread can be very dense and feels as though it would be very dry to eat but it isn’t. I do add a half teasponn of salt to improve the flavour but it makes the best toast ever and if used for sandwiches can be sliced thin and does not pull apart when buttered.

    It is likely that those artisan breads that took over night to rise, may have been sour dough types as I have to leave the dough to rise for 5 to 6 hours. I still use a bread machine to kneed the ingredients but then turn the machine of till risen enough and bake for 1 hour. I believe it was only the adding of brewers yeast to make commercial loaves at the start of the 20th century that began all the intolerances now assoiated with bread. Until then nearly every village would have had it own baker probably making sour dough breads.

    My wife says her slim lunchtime sandwiches no longer make her feel bloated and I feel more awake. It may be the sour dough starter has in fact begun to digest the wheat so its a bit like a sprouted grain.

  13. Julie Craker 4 May 2010 at 12:11 am #

    It seems to be the standard fare for children to have grains in some form all day long. Our four year old granddaughter has grains only as a “fun food”. As I see children sick and cranky with white flour products in their mouths, I have to bite my tongue but do periodically make comments, to no avail. However, I see some very serious issues involving children’s development that I don’t believe are my imagination. One I have noticed is children who have eaten a high grain diet seem to have less muscle and more fatty tissue. I just have to mention the painful constipation I have known children and adults to be hospitalized for. I knew they would laugh at me if I told them it was their diet to blame. If our little darling’s poop is hard, I advise Mom to make sure she gets greens and salad. Voila! Perfect soft bowel movement. I see children and teenagers, not too mention adults, who do not look as healthy as when I was growing up. In fact they look very unhealthy and from the amount of meds and doctors’ visits that are needed, it must be so. Then there is the behavioral aspect of a high grain diet that causes so much more damage than is commonly realized. An excellent book on this is written by a parole officer, Barbara Reed Stitt, called ” Food and Behaviorl”. I realize that it is is more than just grains that are an issue in the health of children, and I could go on and on, but it is a starting point and I feel very deeply that we have no right to compromise the health of our children with our refusal to educate ourselves as to what humans should eat for optimal health and performance. Thank you Dr. Briffa for educating us and giving us a place to air our opinions.

  14. Xenia 4 May 2010 at 12:18 pm #


    spelt does contain some amount of gluten but significantly less than wheat. A great replacement – if bread must be eaten at all – is buckwheat bread. (Buckwheat is not a grain, it is a relative of rhubarb in fact, and its “grains” are not seeds, they are fruit. It is also quite tasty when prepared as rice.) But if commercially baked, you will unfortunately find that some wheat flour is always added because it is gluten that sort of “holds” the bread together.

    It is best to make buckwheat bread by yourself. Here in Europe we like to add walnuts to the buckwheat dough.


    if you miss bread/toast, you could try (apart from the above mentioned buckwheat bread) the following bread replacement (you can ditch the onion if you don’t like it but it is very good for you due to its high content of the bioflavonoid quercetin): mix equal amounts (let’s say 1 cup of each) freshly ground organic sunflower seeds and flaxseed. Add some virgin, cold pressed olive oil and for taste (0,5 cup or more), around 6-8 tbsp organic soy sauce (I am very much against soy and never eat it because it is mostly GM now, also it is one of the worst foods for anybody’s health, almost worst than sugar and gluten combined … but if it is organic and fermented and if the sauce does not contain sugar, artificial colorants and stuff like that, it is OK to assault your body with it every once in a while).

    If you don’t want soy sauce, add some Himalayan salt, dissolved in water. Mix well and adjust oil and soy sauce/salty water to make an appropriately sticky “dough”. Optionally, add 3/4 cup of thinly sliced onions and add into the mix. Spread on fruit dryer trays (on foil), about 1 cm thick or less, or dry in an over, at low temperature (below 40 °C, to prevent destroying the enzymes), for about 48 hours. For best results, turn the slices after first 24 hours. It may sound complicated but it is the best braed replacement I have ever found. And practice does make it easier.

    You can dry it a little bit longer, to achieve the crunchiness of the crackers. Hope you enjoy it!

  15. Denis Dillon 9 May 2010 at 5:55 pm #

    I eat organic rye sourdough. My energy levels in the afternoon have soared & I can even tolerate wheat bread occasionally (once a week).

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