Focusing on healthy nutrition at the workplace can be a challenge for many people. Between busy schedules, limited food options, and high job demands, it’s no wonder that the majority of people struggle to eat a healthy diet while at work. Many working adults spend the majority of their waking hours in the workplace, and the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime (1). This begs the question: what can we do to improve our nutrition in our current workplace environments, which are not always conducive to healthful eating? Here are 6 P’s to keep in mind when preparing for healthy eating in the workplace:
Include a source of protein at every meal and snack. Protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients (2) and will keep you full longer while also providing your body with the amino acid building blocks it needs to build and maintain muscle, hormones, and many other important biological processes. Protein also has the highest thermogenesis of the macronutrients (2), meaning that it takes more energy for your body to break down the protein you ingest, giving it a slight metabolic advantage over carbohydrates and fat. Some good sources of protein include: eggs, meats, poultry, fish, cheese, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, tofu, tempeh, edamame, veggie patties, nuts, and nut butters. For a convenient snack, or even a quick meal, a protein shake or bar can be a good option. Look for bars and shakes with approximately 120-220 calories, 15-30 grams of protein, and less than 10 grams of net carbohydrates (total carbohydrates minus fiber).
In addition to protein, aim to eat plant food sources during your meals, or try to work them into your snacks. Plants provide us with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and important phytonutrients. Preparing a salad for lunch is an easy way to get in 1-2 cups of leafy greens. You can also use lettuce wraps to hold sandwich contents, such as turkey, chicken, tuna, or tofu. Bringing some pre-sliced cucumber, peppers, celery, or carrot sticks with a dip like hummus can be another way to include some veggies, either in your meal or as a snack. If you need a creamy, delicious addition to your lunch, add half an avocado, or for some extra crunch, mix in some nuts or seeds. Adding berries to your salad, yogurt, or cottage cheese can be another great way to spruce up your meal and get some additional fiber and anti-oxidants.
Plan your food intake ahead of time. Take a few minutes, either the evening before or in the morning before dashing out the door, to plan your nutrition in the workplace. Or spend a little time on the weekend preparing food for the week to come. Bringing food from home will save you a significant amount of money and unwanted calories compared to eating out. Consider prepping some veggies and proteins ahead of time, so in the morning all you need to do is throw your chopped-up veggies and protein in a container and run out the door. While a little more expensive, most grocery stores offer pre-cut veggies, pre-cooked meats, hard boiled eggs, and chopped salads with toppings to make your prep time even easier. You can also make some extra food the night before and bring leftovers to work. Some easy options that re-heat well include zucchini noodles with marinara sauce and ground beef or turkey, cauliflower rice stir-fry with chicken, or chopped/ground chicken or tofu for lettuce wraps.
If you are planning on eating out, try to choose the restaurant in advance, so you can look at the menu and the nutrition information and make your choice ahead of time. This helps avoid temptations and eliminates making choices once you arrive. If the restaurant offers bread or chips, move the basket out of your reach, or ask the server to skip them all together. For catered lunches, try to pick out the protein and veggies (such as the turkey, cheese, and lettuce from a sandwich or the toppings on a slice of pizza) and be prepared to supplement your lunch with some items you can bring from home, such a side salad, sliced veggies, a yogurt, or a protein bar or shake.
Don’t eat out of the bag, especially if you are eating at your desk. It’s best to avoid eating while distracted, but if you must, be sure you portion out your servings. Pre-portion things like nuts into individual portion sizes. Measure your food if you can, or use your hand as a quick guide: A fist is approximately 1 cup, the palm of your hand is approximately 3 ounces (meat, fish, poultry), a handful is about ½ cup, your pointer finger is approximately 1 ½ ounces (for cheese, for example), and your thumb is about a tablespoon. When preparing a plated meal use 9-inch plates (salad plates) to help with portion control at meal times.
Make rules about where you can eat. Try to avoid eating while driving or while distracted. This can be tricky in the busy, over-scheduled work environment that many of us live in, but try to sit down and enjoy your food! Put down your phone or computer, set your fork down between bites, and focus on eating. You will feel more satisfied with smaller amounts of food. It will give your brain some time to catch up with your stomach, since your brain trails by about 20 minutes when recognizing satiety. Eat until you are satisfied, not until you are mildly (or severely) uncomfortable.
The purpose of eating is to nourish our bodies with the nutrients that it needs, not to soothe our emotions. However, we often reach for snacks or sugary beverages when we are stressed, bored, or when we need a mental break from our work. If you find that you reach for food for these reasons, try an alternative way to catch a short break and de-stress. Consider taking a quick walk around the office, or preferably, a quick walk outside. If getting away from your desk is not an option, consider taking a few slow, deep breaths instead of reaching for food. You’ll be able to come back to your work refreshed and recharged, and you can avoid the sugar crash an hour or two later!