Workday Willpower

Eating healthy in the workplace can be challenging. Here are some practical tips for avoiding the doughnut and potatochips pitfall.

Attorney Yuliya Oryol tries to eat healthy. But that’s a challenge come Friday, when her San Francisco law firm sets out doughnuts and bagels for the staff. Throw in the end-of-the-month parties complete with cake, snacks, and wine, and any hope of sticking to a nutritious diet simply goes out the window.

Oryol admits that it’s a test of her willpower to steer clear of these calorie-laden goodies. “It’s hard to avoid these things when you’re in the office, especially if you’re rushing to get to work on time and as a result skipped breakfast,” she says. “Or, you’re on a conference call all morning and skip lunch, so you resort to bagels and other junk because you don’t have time to go outside to grab a salad or something healthy.”

When it comes to making healthful choices, the workplace is full of pitfalls. As women work their way up the corporate ladder, they’re facing increasing responsibilities and greater demands on their time, which often leads them to make unhealthy decisions.

“When you’re in the workplace, you have no control. You’re on the go and you don’t have time to think about being healthy,” says Monica Reynolds, MD, a cardiologist in White Plains, New York.

Following are some work-induced health mistakes women make—and ways to avoid them.

Skipping breakfast. We all know that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Yet, it’s the first to fall by the wayside when we’re hurrying to get the kids out the door and ourselves to work on time. Starting the day with a healthful breakfast, which should include some protein, helps reduce hunger later in the day, gives you energy, and improves your concentration.

Some women may view skipping breakfast as a way to lose weight, but studies have shown the contrary. Those who don’t eat breakfast tend to overeat at their next meal, which, in turn, may cause weight gain.

“People think, ‘Well, I didn’t eat breakfast, so I can make lunch two meals,’” says Rebecca Solomon, clinical nutrition coordinator at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Even if you don’t have time for a full, sit-down breakfast every morning, there are easy ways to get in this all-important meal. Although it might be convenient to eat a doughnut or pastry with your morning coffee, try to resist the temptation. Easy, healthful, portable breakfast foods include a piece of fruit and a cup of yogurt.

“Have a supply of items in your refrigerator that you know you’ll eat and can grab on your way out,” says Solomon. “Put a sticky note on your refrigerator or bathroom mirror to remind yourself to grab your breakfast.”

She also suggests keeping packets of instant oatmeal or all-natural bars—she likes Kind whole-nut and fruit bars—in a desk drawer.

Skimping on lunch. The lunch “hour” seems to have gone the way of the three-martini lunch: many office dwellers skip lunch completely or scarf down the midday meal at their desks. Eating quickly at your desk while continuing to work isn’t that pleasant, and Solomon warns that it can also lead to weight gain. The body does not register satiety if food is consumed in less than 20 minutes. So if you simply slow down and savor your food, you will find that a small amount is just as satisfying as a larger portion. Better yet, don’t eat at your desk. Try at least to go to the office lunchroom, or eat outside at a nearby park.

Failing to plan lunches. Those who think they don’t have enough time for lunch may make hasty food choices, often reaching for unhealthy options. But if you plan your lunches in advance, you greatly reduce your chances of grabbing fast food. Dr. Reynolds prepares a whole week’s worth of lunches in one day. She’ll grill some chicken breasts, divide them into four-ounce portions, and freeze them until she’s ready to take them for lunch.

Eating the wrong things at the wrong times. So, you’ve skipped breakfast and you’ve skimped on lunch, but you’ll head to the nearest Starbucks with co-workers to grab a calorie-loaded Mocha Frappuccino and pastry. Or, you’ll dive into the office candy jar or sample a co-worker’s home-baked goody. Studies have shown that grazing during the day can cause weight gain because people tend to overeat or consume unhealthy snacks.

When 4:00 p.m. rolled around, Karen Elizaga, an executive coach in New York City, found herself reaching for a snack—usually a sugar-laden cookie or a bag of potato chips. By dinnertime, when her sugar “crash” hit, she would crave something equally non-nutritious. If you do get hungry between meals, be sure to keep healthy snacks on hand like nuts, fruits, or vegetables. Elizaga decided to shun her junky snacks and now munches on sliced raw bell peppers and other cut-up veggies.

It’s okay to take a break from the office and accompany co-workers on their coffee run—just skip the fluffy coffee drinks and sweets.

Remaining glued to your seat. Sitting at your desk for hours on end may lead you to an early grave. A study published in the November 2012 Diabetologia showed that too much sitting can lead to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, among other maladies. Analyzing the results of 18 studies involving nearly 800,000 test subjects, researchers found that people who spent the most time sitting had higher risks of diabetes (112 percent), cardiovascular events (147 percent), death from cardiovascular causes (90 percent), and death from all causes (49 percent) than those who spent the least time sitting.

“Get out of your chair for a few minutes,” advises Dr. Reynolds. “Go to the bathroom—that’s a great place to hide out for a few minutes. Do some stretches. Get your blood flowing, even if you can’t get outside.”

Getting dehydrated. The Institute of Medicine recommends that women drink about 9 cups of beverages per day to remain hydrated. This amount may vary by individual and whether you live in a warm climate or at high altitude. In general, you should drink enough fluids so that you rarely feel thirsty and produce about 6.3 cups or more of colorless or light yellow urine a day.

“Most of the time, we’re not really hungry—we’re thirsty,” says Dr. Reynolds. She suggests that you avoid soft drinks so that you’re not drinking your calories.

Working 24/7. Even though we live in a world where we can easily check in with work, and vice versa, at any time, it’s important to draw boundaries between your personal and professional lives.

“As women move into management, their bosses think, ‘I pay you the same amount no matter how many hours I can squeeze out of you,’” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, who treats patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. “Women need to learn when to say no. If your workload is leading to fatigue and you’re having insomnia, that means your body is about to blow a fuse.”

Jessica Rohman learned this the hard way. Holding a high-visibility position at her company while juggling the needs of her two young children, Rohman did not realize how stressed she was until she was routinely becoming light-headed from exhaustion after returning to work from maternity leave. She took the incident to heart and asked her boss for a reduced work schedule. Rohman, a program content manager for Great Place to Work® Institute in San Francisco, now works three days a week and is happier, less stressed, and more productive.

If you must work beyond the regular nine-to-five workday, set some limits. Rohman suggests that you allow yourself to work only certain evenings per week, so that it isn’t an every day occurrence. She now designates Friday evenings and all day Saturday and Sunday as off-limits. She may check e-mail on Sunday evenings after her children are in bed. The key, she says, is to disconnect from work and not feel guilty about it.

“In this day and age, people can be accessible all the time, and your work is not going to draw the boundary for you,” says Rohman.

Missing workouts. Finding the time, energy, and motivation to get to the gym can be challenging given the many demands on us. Paying for a specific workout class that’s at a set time or hiring a personal trainer can give you a financial incentive to make it to the gym. Or, start a walking group with co-workers. This will give you collective motivation to exercise, and you’ll strengthen your relationships with your colleagues in the process.

At a minimum, take the stairs, instead of the elevator, to your office. Or, if you take mass transit, get off a stop early and walk to your destination. DW

Sherri Eng is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

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