If office workers throughout the country can bond over anything, it’s that dire feeling, a mix of elation and guilt, that comes from eating your colleague’s delicious birthday cake at morning tea and smashing through that very lonely looking “it was leftover from a meeting” biscuit platter in the lunch room at 3pm.
In acknowledgement of this common ‘health v sugar binge’ dilemma, a new US study has investigated the difficulty of being healthy in the workplace.
Researchers observed the eating habits of 25 university-based office workers, aged 30-to-69 (five men and 20 women), and noticed how they invested a lot of time and energy into planning what, how and where to eat while working.
They concluded that eating healthily at work – resisting sugary office food temptations and pre-preparing good meals to bring in and consume on the job – is actually hard work that requires a significant amount of mental toil, especially when you have to compute calorie, carbohydrate and fat content levels to work out what food is good and bad for you.
The study also finds it takes mental labor to avoid office “food altars”, like empty desks and the tops of filing cabinets, which display leftover food from meetings or inter-office celebrations.
The researchers even acknowledge the effort we expend deciding on what to eat at lunch and whether it will make us more or less productive at work. For example, you might waste mental energy debating between a warm soup and salad. Lucky your colleague shouted you a chicken schnitzel sandwich or you would have never found the energy required to make it back to work from the food court.
So what was the point of this research I hear you ask, over your loud munching of a post-lunch chips bought from the office vending machine?
The clever scientists eventually conclude that drinking water in the workplace is a healthy salvation.
Choosing to drink water – from the water cooler, tap, home or shop – is not only a “purely virtuous” workplace habit that enables employees to exercise control over their wellbeing but it’s associated with healthy walks around the office, which help you to walk away from sugary food altars.
Although Simone Austin, an Accredited Practising Dietitian here in Australia, agrees that drinking water is better for you than eating loads of birthday cake, she believes that making good food choices at work isn’t that hard.
She says employers could encourage healthy workplace practices by simply replacing the office cake with a free nutritious lunch for everyone, or just having a single cake a month to celebrate all recent birthdays at once.
“Order in a fruit box or platter, try dry biscuits like vita wheat instead of sweet biscuits and have sliced cheese in the fridge,” says Austin, spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.
Austin also insists that making good food choices at work doesn’t take more time than bad food choices. It simply means shifting the effort that we all have to put in to cook food (in order to eat and not die from hunger) from one time of day to another.
“For example, if you make extra dinner one night to take with you to work the next day instead of buying lunch, you’ll know what ingredients you’ve used and you won’t waste most of your lunch hour lining up in a queue for food.
“Pre-preparing your lunch could also give you more time to go for a walk at lunchtime. It also allows you to eat whenever you are hungry as you have food on hand.
At the end of the day, Austin says, people find it hard to do lots of things if they don’t want to put in the effort.
“If you make eating good food at work a priority and be realistic about it– perhaps eat healthily for three days not five – then it’s more likely to happen.”
Lead image by Michael Caroe Andersen via Flickr.