How a Workplace Can Impact Your Eating Habits

The birds are chirping as you pleasantly awake from 8 hours of sleep. A leisurely breakfast of slow cook oats, yogurt, blueberries and freshly squeezed orange juice as you browse the morning paper. Wait, alarm goes off!

Likely your day starts with more of a reluctant roll out of bed after pressing snooze for the last possible time. You grab a coffee and bagel as you dash out the door. Obviously, you know this isn’t the best breakfast; but at lunch you’ll have more time to eat properly.

These days we may identify more with morning start number two. The effects of our jam-packed lives can be seen in our growing obesity rates and shrinking activity levels. All of this is happening at a time when the information surrounding health and nutrition is available in abundance – but is knowledge enough?

A recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Economic Research Service (ERS) investigated how situational factors like length of work days affected individuals food choices and other health objectives. Their analysis showed that the following factors affected the quantity and the types of food the average person took in each day:

  • Length of time between eating
  • Location where food choices were made
  • Length of hours worked

Do you stave off hunger for hours and hours?
Researchers estimated that individuals who waited 5 hours instead of 4 between meals or snacks ate an extra 52 calories at the next meal (based on 2000 calories per day diet). Those who extended the length of time between eating from 4-6 hours took in an additional 91 calories. These calories came from high fat, high sugar foods and alcohol. As well, waiting longer than 4 hours between eating is known to contribute to low blood sugar levels, low energy levels and a tendency to overeat at the next meal.

Do you also work longer hours?
This study also estimated that overtime work in addition to staving off hunger for extended periods of time increased consumption of higher calorie and lower dietary quality food. Although these findings are based on a theoretical model, several other studies have found that irregular and extended work hours can contribute to poor food choices (Lopez-Azpiazu, et al., 1999).

Where do you eat?
It is no surprise that location also has a direct affect on the foods and how much you choose to eat. On average this study found that an extra 107 calories were consumed when meals are eaten outside of the home. For someone who buys lunch each work day, that could add up to 535 extra calories each week and 2200 calories each month. That’s a gain of a quarter pound a month and likely not from lean body mass.

The Good News
A little extra planning regarding food choices can help you balance a busy life and your wellness goals.

Everyday Steps to Making Healthy Foods the Easy Choice

Plan, plan, plan:

  • Make a shopping list once a week with easy grab and go snacks and food choices (see below).
  • Turn your car and desk into a mini refrigerator. Purchase a mini cooler bag to keep in your car and stock it with fruit, yogurt, bite size veggies and water. 
  • Carry a water bottle with you always. Make sure you empty it at least 3 times each day.
  • Pack at least 1-2 snacks and lunch each day. See below for some quick, healthy ideas.
  • Cook in bulk: make an extra serving to pack for lunch the next day. Grill a few extra chicken breasts to have throughout the week for lunches and snacks.
  • Eating out. Check out the restaurant menu on-line ahead of time. Plan to order the healthier option and don’t be afraid to modify your meal to make it healthier. Many restaurants will even have the nutritional information available as well.

Quick Grab Snacks:

  • Granola Bars: Nature Valley Fibre Source, Kashi, All Bran
  • Crackers: Wasa, Ryvita, Finn Crisps, Triscuits thin crisps , Melba Toast, Grains First
  • Low fat yogurt
  • Bite Size veggies: pre-packaged carrots, snow peas, mixed vegetable packs
  • Hand sized fruit: nectarine, apple, orange, banana, pear
  • Pre-packaged snacks: tuna & crackers, tuna salad mix, fruit cups, jerky, fruit crisps, fruit leather, pretzels

Easy, Quick and healthy Lunch Ideas:
Eating Out:

  • 6-8 pieces of vegetable and fish sushi (no tempura)
  • Grilled chicken salad (1 tbsp vinaigrette dressing on side)
  • 2 slices whole wheat thin crust pizza with vegetables and half cheese
  • Vegetable or minestrone soup

A la Desk or Car:

  • 3 Wasa crackers, 6 slices deli meat, 20 mini carrots, 1 low fat yogurt & water
  • 1 package low salt chicken soup, 6 whole wheat crackers, 1 apple, 1 small handful nuts & water
  • 1 low fat yogurt, 1 cup Kashi cereal, 1 pear & water
  • 5 Finn crisps, 3 thin slices low fat cheese, apple, 1 tetra pack soy milk

The stats are based on one study so there is likely variability with the extent each factor affects the foods we choose. However, the evolution of longer work days, busier lifestyles and convenience foods has influenced our overall wellness as a culture. We have more information about food, nutrition and health than ever before, but feeding our bodies consistently well remains a challenge for many people. 

Healthy nutrition isn’t as hard as you think! By planning your day to include nutrition at work you will have the birds chirping all day long. For individualized dietary planning and nutrition that will fit your lifestyle, contact a Registered Dietitian through

Lopez-Azpiazu I; Martinez-Gonzalez MA; Kearney J; Gibney M; Martinez JA.Public Health Nutr. 1999 Jun;2(2):209-15.

Kinsey, J. & Mancino., L. Is Dietary Knowledge Enough? Hunger, Stress, and Other Roadblocks to Healthy Eating. 2008. Economic Research Report No. (ERR-62).

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