This work perk could be hurting your waistline
Gathering to share a meal with colleagues is common in the American workplace. Whether someone brings in treats for your department, passes out birthday goodies, supplies breakfast or lunches or your workplace has onsite food options like a cafeteria, eating and the workplace go hand in hand.
While breaking bread together has its benefits, including fostering a sense of community and camaraderie within your department, the extra calories found in free treats can add up and cause unwanted weight gain.
A recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Acquisition and Purchasing Survey, which evaluated over 5,000 U.S. employees’ food choices at work, including purchases made from vending machines or the cafeteria as well as free food available. The study showed that nearly a quarter of the participants got food from work at least once a week. The average amount of weekly calories in those foods? 1,300, with 70 percent coming from free food.
In addition to accounting for a high number of participants’ weekly caloric intake, foods obtained at work tended to have a higher sodium content, were made of refined grains and contained solid fats and added sugars. Essentially, eating these foods caused people to consume more “empty calories” – those with no nutritional value – than they might have otherwise if the foods had not been available.
You’ll find those empty calories in cookies, cakes, donuts, chips and pizza, just to name a few.
“Snacking can add extra calories in your diet, and if you do not change the amount of food eaten at other times during the day, it can cause weight gain,” says Elizabeth Prendergast, a registered dietitian at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill.
Occasionally enjoying a birthday cupcake or selecting a slice of deep dish pizza from the cafeteria won’t be detrimental to your long-term health, but consistently choosing unhealthy options at work can impact both your waistline and your health.
Want to prioritize eating healthy from 9 to 5? Follow Predergast’s tips:
Pack your food
If you can bring your lunch and snacks to work every day, that’s a plus. When packing food for the day, make sure you include a variety of fruits, vegetables and proteins. An apple and a handful of nuts or a banana or granola with yogurt make great snacks. A salad topped with your choice of protein or a rice bowl with a lean protein and vegetables are good lunch options.
“By packing food ahead of time, you can ensure the snacks you choose will fit into your day without causing you to ingest too many calories,” says Prendergast. “Having the right snacks with you can help prevent grabbing something with little nutritional value from the vending machine.”
Pack the best food options
Snacking can help you stay energized throughout the day and give you a dose of healthy nutrients, but it can also be a source of extra calories. To avoid grabbing whatever is available at the office or at home to snack on (which may or may not be the healthiest choice), try packing snacks that contain both produce (fruits and vegetables) and protein. Look for snacks that have 10 grams of protein and three grams of fiber.
“Protein and fiber help to slow the digestive process, allowing an individual to feel satisfied for a longer period,” says Prendergast.
Spread out your meals
Eat often, but don’t eat all day long. Prendergast recommends eating something every two to three hours, but to avoid eating snacks and meals any closer together.
“If you are snacking more than every two hours, there is a good chance you’re eating as a coping mechanism, whether eating is for stress, happiness or boredom,” says Prendergast.
Eating throughout the day stabilizes your blood sugar, which can help keep your mood up. If you find yourself getting irritable, otherwise known as “hangry”, during the workday, it could be a sign your blood sugar is dropping. Eating a healthy snack should help improve your mood and your ability to concentrate, another factor influenced by fluctuating blood sugar levels.
Navigate free office food
If you’re bringing in food for your co-workers, consider a vegetable and hummus tray, fruit salad, proportioned nuts or trail mix or a salad with a lean protein, says Prendergast.
“Leave behind the extra croutons and bacon and keep dressing on the side,” she says.
If co-workers bring in less healthy options, remember it’s up to you if you want to eat them or not. It’s okay to indulge from time to time. It’s also okay to join in the office celebration, but not eat the treats.
Choose healthy options in the cafeteria
Need to head to the cafeteria for lunch? You can still select healthy options. Stop by the salad bar and top your bowl with tons of vegetables. Avoid heavy dressings and opt for a light vinaigrette instead. If you’re concerned about portion control, eat half a sandwich purchased at the cafeteria for lunch and save the rest for a snack or lunch the next day.
“Sometimes individuals think they are making a healthier choice, and therefore do not monitor portion sizes as closely,” says Prendergast, who recommends purchasing foods like nuts or trail mix that have been prepackaged with the correct portion size.
Even if you choose the healthiest food options available, make sure you take some time after you eat to be active during the workday, whether it’s a 15-minute walk or doing some light stretching in your office, to aid digestion.
Trying to watch your weight? Take a free, quick online risk assessment to learn more about your ideal weight by clicking here.
About the Author
Colette A. Harris, health enews contributor, is the public affairs and marketing coordinator at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Il. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and has nearly a decade of experience writing about health and wellness, which are her passions. When she’s not writing, you can find her practicing yoga, cooking, reading, or traveling.