Dietitian Caitlin Reid identifies the classic weight traps to be found in any workplace, on the road, or for stay-at-home mums ... then explains the simple steps to avoid them.
Issue 1: Skipping breakfast
When your alarm sounds each morning it can be very tempting to roll over and hit the snooze button for another 10 minutes of sleep. But if that extra nap comes at the expense of a healthy breakfast, you could be making your first mistake of the day.
Not only does skipping breakfast slow your metabolism, but many studies report that people who skip breakfast are heavier than people who get their morning munch.
The simple fact is that skipping breakfast increases the likelihood of reaching for sugary and fatty mid-morning snacks like mega-sized muffins and banana bread, in a bid to boost low blood-sugar levels. This sets you up for a day of fluctuating energy levels and bad eating habits – hardly conducive to maintaining a healthy weight, let alone being productive at work.
How to beat it
Make breakfast a must every day. It will increase alertness and concentration and help you manage your shape. Get up 10 minutes earlier each morning or pack something healthy the night before to take to eat it at work.
Alternatively, keep healthy breakfast supplies at work. If you can’t stomach a proper breakfast, try a liquid breakfast (such as an Up & Go) or a banana, and then eat something more substantial mid-morning.
Issue 2: Overtime
Studies have established the link between working overtime and weight gain – as much as 15kg over 10 years or even more. Weight gain is even more likely for women who are dissatisfied with combining paid work and family life.
The first big problem with overtime is that those long hours usually lead to irregular eating patterns with skipped dinners, vending machine binges, and last minute drive-thru dashes.
While fast-food options are convenient when you’re exhausted, they’re generally laden with unnecessary kilojoules, fat, sugar and salt. Studies have also found that the more fast-food outlets in your neighbourhood, the greater your weight gain is likely to be.
Then, there’s the lost sleep: a review of 26 studies linked a lack of sleep to weight gain, as it disrupts the body’s internal clock. Research shows that sleeping for only four hours for two consecutive nights decreases leptin levels and increases ghrelin levels, increasing hunger and food intake. Inadequate sleep for even just one night may have the same effect.
How to beat it
If you’re working back late, make sure you stop for dinner at a reasonable hour. Grab your dinner early – when healthy food outlets are still open. Alternatively, take leftovers or even frozen meals to work to ensure healthy dinner options are available.
Aim for seven to eight hours sleep every night, and if that’s not possible, recharge on Saturday morning with a sleep-in.
Issue 3: Lunch
There are two big lunch pitfalls. First – skipping lunch altogether when you’re busy. Not only does this reduce productivity for the rest of the afternoon, but it almost always leads to an afternoon biscuit binge or unhealthy choices before (or for) dinner.
The other major trap is what you eat. One study found that 54 per cent of workers purchase lunch two or more times per week. This wouldn’t be a problem if we were all buying wholegrain salad rolls, but most bought lunches come from fast-food outlets or sandwich shops who pile on far more butter, cheese or mayonnaise than we ever would at home. Not to mention all those salads bought by workers trying to be healthy; many of them are drenched in so much fatty (and salty) dressing you might as well eat a hamburger and fries!
How to beat it
Allow yourself one day a week to buy your lunch but bring it from home on other days. If you don’t have enough time to make it, bring supplies to work: bread, tinned tuna, tomato, cucumbers, lettuce and cheese can be kept in the work fridge and easily turned into lunches throughout the week. Even better, form a lunch club with a few work colleagues. Share the lunch duty and each day a different person in the group brings lunch for everyone else.
Issue 4: Stress
Work stress can lead to weight gain in a number of ways. First of all, biologically: when we sense danger, our bodies go into ‘fight or flight’ mode and release a flood of stress hormones into the bloodstream – including cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. Chronically high levels of these hormones then elevate blood glucose and insulin levels, which in turn promotes fat storage. Stress also leads to weight gain by promoting comfort eating and poorer food choices; how many times have you reached for a kilojoule-dense chocolate bar or packet of chips when stressed?
Finally, the stress of job advancement can lead to weight gain. Recent research from the UK found that a promotion produces 10 per cent more mental strain, which has been linked with higher levels of abdominal obesity.
How to beat it
The only real way to escape the damaging effects of stress is to learn how to manage it; increasing your tolerance levels and developing coping strategies to make situations less stressful.
Allocate ‘me’ time to de-stress. If you’re an emotional eater, don’t keep unhealthy foods in your desk or home – by the time you go to buy them you may have calmed down. Instead, keep healthy snacks at hand for all occasions.
Issue 5: Mindless eating
When you’re frantically busy at work, or running from one meeting to another, food hardly enters your mind. But spend hours sitting at your desk and you’ll often find yourself reaching for anything edible. It’s also well documented that when food is made readily accessible, you’ll eat more.
In one US study, non-obese secretaries were given Hershey’s kisses either on their desks or 2 metres away. You can probably guess the results: the secretaries with the chocolates on their desks ate more (nearly six more) chocolates each day than those who had to stand up and walk 2 metres for them.
Just the act of having to do a little work for food can help us eat less. Another study found that obese people were more likely to eat almonds if they were shelled instead of unshelled.
And if mindless eating wasn’t problem enough, we often drink mindlessly at work – in coffee form. That cup of Nescafé with a dash of milk has been replaced by lattés and cappuccinos which contain lots of milk, not to mention sugar or syrup. They’re bigger too; a large takeaway coffee can contain as much as 600ml! This translates to liquid kilojoules, which research has shown we don’t allow for by eating less throughout the day. In other words, they’re just extra kilojoules, which lead to weight gain.
How to beat it
The first rule is to keep food out of sight, so it’s out of mind too. Leave fruit and water on your desk, but place everything else in your desk drawer or kitchen. In the kitchen, keep biscuits or lollies in opaque jars so you won’t be tempted by the sight of them.
Limit yourself to one regular-size coffee daily, and avoid super-sizing. Take time to savour it.
Issue 6: Technology
Technology saves us time, right? In some ways, yes of course, but in many others technology actually makes us less productive and leads to longer hours, interruptions throughout the evening, and then less sleep at night.
Workers are interrupted by an email, phone call or colleague every 11 minutes, on average. It then takes 25 minutes to refocus on the job at hand. These interruptions account for 28 per cent of the average 9 to 5 day, which reduces productivity and leads to overtime – which means less time for exercise and making healthy meals.
What’s worse is all those emails and messages that arrive via mobile phones and Blackberries throughout the night, keep stress levels escalated and interfere with quality sleep. Interrupted sleep inhibits the release of the growth hormone which tells your body to breakdown fat for fuel. Instead, our bodies hold onto extra kilojoules instead of burning them.
How to beat it
Avoid being ‘on call’ all day and night by designating specific times to check emails, return calls and speak with colleagues. At home, switch off all forms of technology before going to bed and write a list of important jobs that need to be completed the following day. This will help you rest easy. If you wake up during the night thinking about work, jot down the thought and attend to it the following morning when you’re more alert.
Issue 7: Exercise
How often have you phoned or emailed a colleague who sits five metres away or in the next office? Twenty years ago office workers were constantly on the move, getting that much-needed incidental exercise, but now you can be in contact with all of your colleagues without ever leaving your desk.
But does it really make a difference? Yes, says Australian research which shows that the more often you take breaks, the lower your waist circumference and BMI is likely to be. The simple act of standing can double your metabolic rate, and that’s before you even take a step. Sitting down also stops the circulation of the fat-absorbing enzyme lipase, causing fat to circulate in the blood, clogging up arteries or increasing fat stores. If that wasn’t enough to get you out of your seat, remember this: sitting down all day increases your chance of injury when you do exercise, derailing even the most dedicated fitness regime.
The act of sitting for hours causes the deep muscles in the back to overstretch and the abdominal muscles to shorten, leading to muscle imbalances and back pain. When we then head out for exercise after work or on the weekend, we’re much more likely to tear ligaments, strain hamstrings or pull a muscle in our back.
How to beat it
Make the commitment: instead of emailing a colleague five metres away, get up and walk at every opportunity. Take the stairs if you’re only travelling one or two floors, and make sure you get up and move around every hour or so.
Schedule in some exercise either before or after work, or at lunch time. Remember, you need at least 30 minutes each day. If your time is limited, schedule your exercise throughout the week to prevent deconditioning.
Issue 8: Functions
Friday night drinks, birthdays, farewells, corporate lunches and conference cuisine all lead to unnecessary kilojoules in the form of alcohol, cakes, three-course meals and endless supplies of unhealthy finger food.
We may not even be hungry, but the combination of tasty food (and drinks) and spending time with friendly or familiar people makes the meal more enjoyable and can reduce our ability or motivation to monitor food consumption.
These occasions are often a trap, particularly for those people who usually limit their intake of cakes, biscuits and sweets. By categorising them as ‘forbidden’ food in your everyday life, you may end up eating more when you are exposed to them. This is fine if special occasions are just that – special – but if there is a weekly cake or sweet treat in the office it can lead to weight gain.
How to beat it
Before diving into the ‘function’ food, rate your hunger level. Only eat when you’re hungry and watch the portion sizes.
Have a plan when you’re eating out at corporate lunches or conferences – choose what you are going to eat before it is on your plate. As for ‘treat’ foods, ask yourself: “Do I really want it?”. If you do, enjoy it. If you don’t, save it for another time.
Issue 9: Travel
Travelling for work throws your entire routine into disarray. Healthy food options aren’t always available and it can be much harder to schedule time (and a place) for exercise. Long drives make it all-too-easy to stop for afternoon snacks, late meetings can leave you with no other choice but room service, and buffet breakfasts can become a curse for anyone wanting to watch their figure.
How to beat it
Travel with a plan: take snacks with you in the car or on the plane, know the food outlets at your destination, call the hotel beforehand with any special dietary requests and most of all, pack your gym gear. Most hotels have gyms or pools; while it’s easy enough to find a short circuit to walk or run around first thing in the morning. As for the mini bar, ask the hotel staff to remove it before you arrive.
Issue 10: Shift work
Shift work has become increasingly common in the past few years. It’s a fact of life for many people, but it can also wreak havoc with your health. Shift work has been associated with increased body mass index (BMI), obesity and other health problems. According to a study published in the journal Obesity, even alternating shift work increases BMI.
The studies show that while shift workers may not actually eat more, the timing works against them. Secretion of digestive juices reduces during the night, slowing digestion and increasing the risk of stomach ulcers. This, combined with the unavailability of preferred foods in the workplace, reduces the desire to eat and increases the likelihood of poor food choices.
Shift workers also have less opportunity to exercise. Even if they do manage to fit in some exercise, unusual times or exercising in a sleep-deprived state can alter biological and subjective responses, reducing the beneficial effects of exercise.
All these combined make weight loss and weight maintenance difficult.
How to beat it
Getting into a regular pattern is the most important thing.
Make your first meal of the day your biggest meal. When at work, eat small, frequent meals containing low-GI carbohydrates and protein, but low in fat. This will help control blood sugar levels and maintain alertness.
Drink plenty of water to prevent headaches and fatigue, and limit caffeine intake to early in your shift. Make sure you exercise regularly; this doesn’t just increase the number of kilojoules you burn, it will also help you sleep well.
Working from home and at-home mums
Whether you consult from home or are a stay-at-home mum, you are not immune to workplace weight traps – especially with a fully stocked pantry and fridge at your disposal all day. Try these tips to avoid weight gain:
Set yourself a traditional eight-hour day. Make sure you are dressed and ready to go by the time your workday starts – working in PJs makes it very hard to distinguish between home and work life.
Schedule regular times for lunch, plus morning and afternoon tea breaks, to avoid all-day grazing or skipping lunch then bingeing on biscuits at 3pm. Regular meals will help keep your metabolism in check, making weight management easier.
Think of the time you save commuting to an office as your exercise time. Schedule a walk or swim for 5pm and make sure you do it – you can always do overtime after your exercise session.