Stress is a common factor when it comes to unhealthy eating and weight gain. Think about when you're on a deadline – chances are you'll reach for something sugary and unhealthy, or make a dash to the vending machine for a pick-me-up packet of chips.
Fortunately there are ways to stop this from happening and to prevent office stress from derailing your healthy diet.
We spoke to Nathalie Mat and Lerato Radebe, registered dietitians and spokespersons for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa, who shared some helpful tips on eating healthily at the office.
1. Don't skip breakfast
According to Mat there is no one-size-fits-all answer for everyone when it comes to skipping breakfast. “Some people do really well on intermittent fasting and some do terribly,” she says. “From a productivity and energy perspective, I have found that most people do better eating small regular meals.”
2. Keep healthy snacks in your drawer
It’s a good idea to keep healthy snacks in your desk drawer, such as biltong, nuts or seeds. If you have a fridge in the office, Radebe says cheese, fruit and yoghurt are also quick and healthy go-to snacks. “If you have a little more time, some peanut butter on a spoon, or an apple, veggie sticks and hummus also make nutritious snacks,” she says. “Many people ask about protein and cereal bars but I advise against these as they can be high in kilojoules and sugar.”
3. Avoid skipping meals
It sometimes happens that you’re so busy you skip breakfast or lunch. However, Mat says this is not a good idea. “When we skip meals, our blood sugar levels can dip. Poor blood sugar control often results in poor energy levels,” she says. Her recommendation is to fuel your brain with something small because “skipping meals entirely can lead to out-of-control hunger and overeating”.
4. Don't eat at your desk
How often do you eat your lunch away from your desk? Probably not very often. But Radebe says it’s important to set aside time to eat so that you enjoy your food and meals. “It will also make you more cognisant of your intake as well as ensuring you chew properly too,” she says. “Many people eat much more than they realise because they are so busy doing other things while eating.”
She suggests moving away from your desk over lunch – sit in the kitchen or find an empty boardroom. “Dedicate some time and make a mini event out of your meals. Even the most boring meal tastes better when enjoyed with some friends or colleagues.”
5. Navigate the office canteen
The office canteen can be convenient for grabbing a quick meal over lunch but you may also be tempted by the unhealthy food on offer. Mat suggests you start healthy. “Put salads and vegetables on your plate first to make sure you're getting at least half a plate of these, then put a small portion of lean protein like fish or skinless chicken on your plate followed by about a quarter of your plate of starchy foods like brown rice or potatoes.”
And if there are no healthy options? “Speak to the canteen manager – how will they know you want healthier options if you don’t ask for them?”
She adds that sometimes the cheapest and easiest option is to take leftovers from the night before to work. “You won't have to navigate the decision of what to eat if you have a packed lunchbox with you.”
6. Pack a healthy lunch
“Time is of the essence for me,” says Radebe. “I don’t always have time to make a special lunch so I pack my lunch in the evenings. It’s a slight variation from what I cooked for dinner, for example salads, wraps, sandwiches, and in winter it’s soup, soup, soup!” She says soups are a great way to include vegetable portions, while still enjoying that cosy comfort food meal.
7. Avoid the afternoon slump
The afternoon slump can hit for a number of reasons – you may have under-eaten all day and your blood sugar levels are dipping; you may have skipped meals altogether; or, strange as it may sound, you may have eaten too much and are spending most of your energy digesting lunch instead of focusing on work. Mat says you should avoid getting an unhealthy snack from the vending machine or canteen by fuelling yourself well earlier in the day. “I often find having a fruit snack about half an hour before I usually have a dip can help,” says Mat.
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