Why is it so hard to eat right? “When you’re hungry, you’re not a philosopher,” explains Dr. Daisy Merey, a physician and authority on eating habits.
Indeed, food — and especially the lack thereof — brings out our animal nature. And when we homo sapiens find ourselves in the artificial environment of the workplace, complete with its stresses, catered temptations, psychosocial dramas, smelly refrigerators, bureaucratic tedium and, yes, vending machines, we are animals who eat badly more often than not.
“You’re sitting in a room with no windows for hours, and sometimes you just get bored and eat,” says Natalie Davis-Runyan, a regional vice president for staffing firm Todays Office Professionals. And if you eat what’s within reach, such as cafeteria food, high-calorie snacks and so on, you’re alarmingly likely to develop health problems.
What can you do to improve what you eat at the office, which for many of us is the bulk of what we consume all day? Here are a few approaches to better nutrition in the land of heartburn and the pizza-sized chocolate chip cookie.
Bring Your Own Food
The consensus of health and nutrition professionals is that you’ll eat much better if you plan ahead and pack a lunch. “You have to be prepared and bring food that’s healthy,” says Merey. “A brown bag is always better than a restaurant or vending machines.”
Brown baggers are a small but significant contingent of the workforce. “There’s about 25 percent of the people who bring their own lunches and walk away from the birthday cake,” says Davis-Runyan.
Your planning should go beyond a lunch that includes fruits and vegetables and not too much sugar or fat. “Ideally, you want snacks with fiber, protein and carbs,” says Elysse Lakatos, a registered dietitian. For example, “pistachios have those nutrients, and it takes time to shell them,” she says — time that can give your craving a chance to subside before you stuff yourself.
Control Portions to Control Your Waistline
Whether it’s a meat entree or guilty snack in a bag, you’ve got to control portions to eat healthfully at the office. The key is to portion out at home what you’ll be eating in the break room.
If you must snack on fat-infused carbohydrates, try pre-portioned 100- or 150-calorie bags. “We have a natural tendency to finish the bag, whatever the size, even though people can satisfy cravings with small amounts,” says Miriam Pappo, director of clinical nutrition at Montefiore Medical Center.
Get Real About What’s Healthy
Educate yourself to understand what’s really nutritious. Those little cheesy fish-shaped crackers may be less nutritionally damaging than most potato chips, but they’re still not health food. “There are a lot of foods that we think are healthy, but they’re not,” says Pappo. “One of the biggest is muffins; even a regular doughnut can have many fewer calories.”
Still, sometimes you can fool yourself in a good way. “People who hide candy in a dark container are less likely to eat it than if they put it in a glass bowl,” says Merey.
Advocate for Institutional Change
Employees should bring their nutritional needs to management, which often controls the cafeteria as well as the vending machines. “The food service is a money maker for hospitals, so they want to balance what is healthy with what is profitable,” says Pappo. Unfortunately, unhealthy foods often make the most money because they sell so well.
Then there are catered lunches, those stacks of meaty sandwiches and mountains of over-the-top desserts mandated by executives looking to trigger each others’ budget envy. The first solution to try is the simplest: “Ask the people who are ordering if they can change the food,” says Tammy Lakatos, a registered dietitian and sister of Elysse Lakatos.
Take Special Care If You’re a Woman
Finally, women should remind themselves that their cardiovascular health is of great concern, media emphasis on men’s heart attacks notwithstanding. “More women than men die of heart disease each year,” says Dr. Aliya Browne, clinical director for the Hainesport Women’s Heart Center.
And women may have more difficulty staying away from unhealthy foods at the office, according to Browne: “We can become a bit more stressed than men, and that can make us more emotional eaters.”