Employees are spending more and more time at work these days, getting in early or staying late. As a result, people are eating more meals away from home, which can lead to poor nutrition decisions. Paired with an increasing rate of sedentary jobs, Americans are facing a lifestyle-based epidemic of too many “calories in” and not enough “calories out.” However, a little bit of planning and some mindful decisions can tip the scales back in your favor, even if you are stuck behind a desk 10 hours a day. Here is the first tip—do not sit all 10 hours!
Breakfast at home
Many people have breakfast at home before heading to work, often in a rush. An early starting time, paired with long commutes, leads to an even earlier wake-up time, often at 5 am or 6 am. At this point, you may value every minute of sleep over a fussy breakfast.
Luckily, you can prepare many breakfast options in about 5 minutes, such as:
– Add your own fruit, whatever is available, on sale, and/or tasty, such as berries, banana, melon, mango, etc
– Add a crunch by using a whole-grain cereal rather than granola, because granola can have up to twice the amount of calories (up to 200 calories in ½ cup (C) of granola vs 100 calories or less in many other cereals
Breakfast at work
If you are not hungry first thing in the morning and prefer to have breakfast once you get to work, consider these tips:
– Choose whole-grain bread rather than a roll or bagel
– Hold the cheese
– Add vegetables, whenever possible
– Consider substituting egg whites on occasion to save on calories and cholesterol
– Limit sugar, raisins, honey, and nuts
– Try cinnamon for added nutrients and no extra calories
– Know that the average bagel with cream cheese is a whopping 550−600 calories, and many breakfast combos can top out at or more than 1000 calories, half of the daily caloric needs for an average adult
– Avoid foods that are loaded with high-calorie extras, such as French toast or pancakes with syrup and butter, when you must eat at a fast-food chain
– Order basic sandwiches (egg on English muffin) or cereals (oatmeal)
– Make sure it is not loaded with extra sugar
– Ask if you can choose the ingredients yourself
– Try including vegetables in your juice order, such as spinach
Make sure to eat something within 1−2 hours of waking to prevent the temptation of overeating at the next meal. Studies have shown that going without food for more than about 4 hours leads to a decreased metabolism. Consider the last time you ate before breakfast!
Lunch: To brown bag or not to brown bag?
If you do not like bringing breakfast to work, odds are you probably do not want to bring lunch either. However, lunch is the one meal that can set the tone for whether you feel energetic or sluggish at 3 pm and whether you overeat at dinner. The best way to make healthy decisions on what you eat at lunch is to make it yourself! However, preparing lunch can feel like a chore the night before, especially if you have to get up early the next morning.
Time is not an excuse if you use some of these quick, healthy brown-bag options. Consider packing:
If you choose to get lunch from your company’s cafeteria or a local vendor, consider these tips in order to get exactly what you want—no extra fat and calories, no fewer nutrients:
– Stay clear of creamy dressings, oil, cheese, and bacon, which can lead to extra calories
– Choose one “indulgence” for your sandwich each day, rather than two or three, then rotate
Dinner: Staying late
If you are working a typical daytime job, odds are dinner is not one of your to-dos at work. Unfortunately late nights happen, and they usually are stressful. Increased stress often can lead to emotion-based eating decisions and poor food choices. Creating a dinner contingency plan and keeping it at your desk will keep better decisions a short reach away.
Try these suggestions:
– Say “no” to colleagues who ask you to go out for a bite to help you “feel better,” because this usually means ordering high-calorie or greasy foods
– Stick to your plan of going home and having a healthier meal
– Suggest a healthier alternative to the group, such as sushi, if you want to go out
– Get menus from local establishments, so you know what to choose, unless your company is paying and ordering the food for you
– Review menus, even those from fast-food establishments, to find the healthiest choices, such as a slice of pizza loaded with vegetables and a side salad from the pizza shop or steamed chicken/shrimp with vegetables, brown rice, and sauce on the side from the Chinese restaurant
– Choose “grilled” items
– Ask for fewer toppings, such as no cheese or mayonnaise
– Do not order fries or order the smallest size
– Get a healthy side, such as a baked potato, yogurt, fruit, or side salad
– Realize that there is no point of buying “feel better” food, if you cannot even enjoy it
– Stop and take 15−20 minutes to eat—stop working and enjoy the taste
– Take a break so you can enjoy your food, socialize with co-workers, and gain better awareness of your hunger and satiety signals, which will help you focus better when you return to your desk
– Have half of a dinner when you order it
– Save the other half and eat it about 1−2 hours before your workout or just have a small snack, such as a piece of fruit, before your workout to provide a quick boost of energy
Snacks: Filling in the gaps
The human body needs fuel every 3−4 hours. However, people structure their eating habits around their 9 am to 5 pm (or 8 am to 6 pm) schedule on most workdays. Breakfast is typically between 6 am and 7 am, lunch is around noon to 1 pm, and then dinner is served after work at 6 pm to 7 pm. That is about 6 hours between meals! No wonder so many people are famished by mealtime, overeat, and then feel extremely full for the next hour, only to do it all over again at the next meal. Studies show that people make worse food decisions when they are very hungry.
Small, sensible snacks between meals can stem the tide of hunger and help people make more sensible food decisions. So what makes a good snack? Consider it a “mini-meal” and include a little protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats, whenever possible.
Here are some great snack ideas:
Even if you do not want to pack meals for work, consider keeping some healthy snacks on hand for those mid-morning and mid-afternoon hunger pangs. Also, think about whether you are actually hungry or maybe just dehydrated. Instead of eating something, try having something to drink, which often will do the trick for many fewer calories. A good way to tell if you are truly hungry is to drink a glass of water and wait 15 minutes. If you are still hungry, then it is hunger!
References and recommended readings
Golden L. How long? The historical, economic and cultural factors behind working hours and overwork. In: Research Companion to Working Time and Work Addiction. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar; 2006:36-57.
Greeno CG, Wing RR. Stress-induced eating. Pyschol Bull. 1997;115:444-464.
Holland K. Working long hours, and paying a price. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/jobs/27mgmt.html. Accessed August 20, 2011.
Louis-Sylvestre J, Lluch A, Neant F, Blundell JE. Highlighting the positive impact of increasing feeding frequency on metabolism and weight management. Forum Nutr. 2003;56:126-128.
Ma Y, Bertone ER, Stanek EJ III, et al. Association between eating patterns and obesity in a free-living US adult population. Am J Epidemiol [serial online]. 2003;158:85-92. Available at: http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/158/1/85.short. Accessed August 20, 2011.
Nishitani N, Sakakibara H. Relationship of obesity to job stress and eating behavior in male Japanese workers. Int J Obes [serial online]. 2006;30:528-533. Available at: http://www.nature.com/ijo/journal/v30/n3/abs/0803153a.html. Accessed August 20, 2011.
Parker-Pope T. Workplace cited as a new source of rise in obesity. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/26/health/nutrition/26fat.html?pagewanted=all. Accessed August 20, 2011.
Zelman KM. Cheap and healthy brown-bag lunch ideas (for grownups): 10 workday lunches that will save you time, money, and calories. Available at: http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/cheap-and-healthy-brown-bag-lunch-ideas-for-grownups. Accessed August 20, 2011.
Contributed by Jason Machowsky, MS, RD, CSCS
Review Date 10/11