Excuse Me Miss Dietitian, What Should I Eat at Work?

Many of us struggle to eat a good lunch at work and when we do eat it, 47% of us have only our keyboards for company. With the immediacy and responsiveness that the digital age demands, the fall out is often a haphazard approach to food choices. Snacks merge into meals, we have amnesia over what and how much we ate and for those of us that do embrace Tupperware, there is perhaps confusion over what it should contain.

It isn’t new information that eating right supports good performance by helping to improve mental resilience and reduce feelings of tiredness and fatigue. A good diet is the backbone that supports our health and resistance to infection, yet frequently it falls down the priority list. Whether we’re guilty of snacking on anything within reach at 3pm, skipping lunch altogether or going on another pseudo photocopier trip via the kitchen to sample the delights someone has brought back from holiday, many of us are missing an opportunity to use nutrition to our advantage.

Alongside the practical challenges of eating well within the workplace, there are the added controversies surrounding what you should actually be putting in your mouth. What defines healthy, and can you be bothered to queue for it in the 15 minutes you have between meetings? 

Here are my top tips for fuelling the working day. If you can get it right, you will reap the benefits (and potentially that promotion)!

Is breakfast worth getting up for?

Regardless of whether you have breakfast or not, there is no hard evidence to conclude whether having it makes you healthier. However, research does show those who eat it tend to have healthier habits and be leaner as a result, so it may pay to start the day right (wholegrain cereals, dairy, eggs, fruit that kind of thing). If you’re just not hungry, then don’t force it down, but if a lack of it leads to a pastry at 11am then rethink. Also bear in mind a working brain requires fuel…

Should I avoid carbs to stay awake?

Carbohydrates are a hotly debated and controversial nutrient! Outlets are falling over themselves to tell you they’re steering clear of it, and yet we all still need it, forcing our body to make it from other nutrients if we don’t directly consume it. The only fuel the brain will use is glucose – and on particularly challenging days, it will have to burn up more of it to enable you to perform. If you don’t eat it in a form that supports a steady rise and fall of blood glucose levels, you will undoubtedly lurch from one crash to another. The answer is simply to get the balance right.

Proportionally high carb lunches such as large jacket potatoes with beans or baguettes with sparse fillings and a limp lettuce leaf are likely to push up your blood glucose levels and feed your brain, but then leave you with a sleepy slump around 3-4pm. Catnap anyone? 

Conversely, protein, filled with promises of staving off hunger and keeping you lean, may not give you all you need either… containers crammed full of salmon, eggs and seeds will certainly boost your circulating amino acids and omegas but will do nothing for brain stamina and concentration on their own. In fact, the amino acid tryptophan which is needed for production of serotonin (the hormone to make you happy in your work) only travels into the brain for conversion if carbohydrates are present, so it really does pay to combine nutrients together.

Look for some grain (wholegrain is better) – it doesn’t have to be a grain you can’t pronounce (although these tend to be very good for us) but it should form a quarter to a third of your meal. Lean protein (lean beef, white meat, fish, pulses, eggs, dairy) is also important as is a bit of veggie crunch to help your appetite centre in your brain recognise you’re eating (every little helps if you can’t tear yourself away from your screen).

Should I join the bullet brigade?

What is important for concentration is your hydration status; even mild dehydration forces your brain to work harder to achieve the same outcome and multi- tasking becomes particularly difficult. Busy work days often work against us as deadlines, and distractions force us to neglect basic signals of thirst.

If water is uninspiring, add fresh lemon, try squashes with no added sugar, diluted fruit juices, milk or even tea and coffee all count. Contrary to what you may think, caffeine needs to be taken in large single doses (around 300mg) for it to have a diuretic effect so around 3 cups of caffeinated drinks spaced out over a day will also contribute to hydration.

If you want to tantalize your taste buds with some blended creations to hydrate then go ahead. Fluids don’t link to the appetite centre in your brain in the same way though, so it isn’t a good idea to make a habit of drinking calories, especially if you are trying to lose weight.  If juicing/ smoothie making becomes more of a meal replacer then it’ll need some slow release carb or protein in there too – oats, nut butters, greek-style higher protein yogurts for example.

Can and should I snack?

Eating gaps longer than 3-4 hours will leave you tempted by poorer food choices on your commute home and snacks do provide the opportunity to top up on valuable nutrients. However, with ‘snackification’ becoming a new trend in its own right, there’s proof that we don’t always need hunger as an excuse to snack. It forms part of working life, with 34% of people stating it would be harder to give up snacks than sex!

If snacking is relieving boredom, make the unhealthier treats less appealing and reduce consumption by keeping them in opaque containers. Make healthy options visible and consider snacks which leave evidence behind. Shelled pistachios, for example, help to control portion sizes as the shells provide a visual reminder of what’s already been eaten!  Whatever the reason, if you’re prone to snacking and losing track of what you’ve actually eaten – it’s best to choose snacks that have a defined end point – look for smaller serving sizes and a maximum of 150 calories per snack.

And finally…

Trend research shows we are drawn to the idea of naturally functional foods, with a belief that natural is better for us. In truth, the term natural has no defined meaning and is not necessarily synonymous with healthy – but the phrase itself is a good one to bear in mind. Let’s support our bodies and minds to function well with balanced nutrition that naturally does what it should, fuelling us to productivity and beyond!

About the author: Laura Clark is a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist based in London. She is the founder of LEC Nutrition and is dedicated to educating, motivating and inspiring people to lead healthy, balanced lives. 

Image: Shutterstock

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