Eating wisely at work

Tips for increasing healthy food options

Your work environment may be laden with temptation in the lunchroom and break room. Frequent office birthday parties, business lunches at swank restaurants, or staff meetings sweetened by coffee and donuts, can be peril for your waistline. But there are ways to eat wisely. “You’ve got to plan,” advises Jamie Moore, clinical nutrition manager of Lake Wales Medical Center. “Make a grocery list.”

Taking time to buy groceries for the week enables you to sidestep temptation by providing options at your most vulnerable times. “If you know at three or four o’clock you’re starving most days, bring something,” she advises. “Have an apple, have a banana or something that’s healthy.”

Your healthy snacks can replace the higher calorie and fat options in the vending machine, or treats brought by co-workers. “In the end, it’s cheaper. You’re not spending so much on medicine either,” she quips.

In addition to smart shopping, Ernesto A. Uy, MD, a board-certified physician of internal medicine and Polk County Medical Association member, suggests keeping track of calories. “This will show you how your snacking calories can really add up over the course of your day, and will give you a sharper sense of accountability in your food choices,” he observers.

“Make sure you don’t skip a meal, and eat a satisfying breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Dr. Uy suggests. “Drink plenty of water throughout the day and avoid sugary drinks such as sodas and certain fruit juices.” Finding activities that keep you distracted when you are tempted to snack is also good.

While saying no to office goodies may be hard, there’s good reason to try. In the short-term, avoiding unhealthy foods can reduce the afternoon energy crash, which has an immediate affect on cognitive functioning ability and workplace productivity. Long-term, a diet with more fruits and vegetables and less fat and sugar will minimize cholesterol and lower risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

Yet some employees who want to make healthy decisions confess a fear of feeling judged for declining snacks like a co-worker’s birthday cake. “There might be a little bit of a stigma with eating healthy in general because most people in America aren’t,” says Kate Scarlata, a registered dietician with private practice offices in Boston and Medway, Mass. “It’s sort of the notion that misery likes company. Sometimes clients feel it’s difficult to eat healthy because other people feel threatened by it, knowing that they should be eating more nutritious foods too, but they’re not.”

Whether you decide to partake of a co-worker’s birthday cake is a personal choice, however. “If you are a person who can take a small piece of cake and be okay with that, take a small piece of cake,” Moore suggests. “A lot of times people will be okay if you take a drink and wish them well.” Just being there may be enough. “You’re still participating. You’re just not eating,” she adds.

You also can help yourself and encourage others by asking to broaden office menu options to include salad or other healthy options. In the office cafeteria, you can ask for low-fat or non-fat salad dressings and more salad bar choices without mayonnaise. “Lead by example,” she advises, “let them kind of follow along.”

But ultimately, bringing your own food gives you more control. “If you bring your own lunch, you have control of what you’ve bought,” says Moore. “Most people aren’t going to make onion rings if they pack their lunch.”

Cooking extra the night before is a simple solution. Perspective is important, however. “Personally eating out everyday would get monotonous,” Moore points out. “French fries again. Chinese again.”

Dr. Toni Yancey, professor of health services at the UCLA School of Public Health and co-director of the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity, says the food culture in workplaces reflects the convenience-oriented mindset. “People are chained to desks and just grab something quick. That’s rewarded in the workplace,” Yancey says. “We aren’t integrating health into how we do business, we’re just doing business fast and furious.”

The solution? Make healthy choices more convenient and accessible than unhealthy choices. That may mean incorporating more good snacks into vending machines and ensuring there are healthy options at meetings and potlucks.

Much of that responsibility, she says, falls to the people in charge. “We have to structure our environment to help us make healthier choices by actually encouraging people to bring good things to meetings,” Yancey says. “Leaders set the tone,” but in the 9-5 environment anyone can lead by example and eat wisely at work.



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