From raiding the office biscuit tin to being glued to your chair, common workplace traps can easily cause your weight to balloon out of control. Here’s how to conquer them.
We often joke about our job’s harmful effects on our health, but it’s no laughing matter. Whether you’re chained to a desk or run off your feet all day, your workday behaviour can easily contribute to kilo creep. We’re often unaware of the way our small habits make such a big difference to our size. So see if you can recognise any of these common pitfalls in your daily routine.
When your morning alarm snaps you out of slumber, it’s tempting to hit the snooze button. But if that extra 10-minute nap comes at the expense of a wholesome breakfast, you’ve just made your first mistake of the day.
“There’s good evidence to show that people who find it easier to control their weight are breakfast eaters,” says dietitian Laura Clark. “Breakfast not only kickstarts our metabolism for the day, but also makes us less likely to reach for that midmorning fatty or sugary snack as we desperately try to boost our flagging blood-sugar levels.”
How to avoid it
Break the fast
Lose the mind-set that breakfast is a time-consuming luxury. Think of it as a way to boost your energy, sharpen your concentration and help manage your weight — and make it a priority in your morning.
“Ideally, include whole grains, protein and either fruit or vegies,” says Clark. Try Bircher muesli, poached eggs and spinach on rye bread, or nut butter and banana slices on toast.
No problem. “If you have to grab food on the way to work, forgo muffins or croissants and go for oats with fruit, or raisin toast and a skim coffee, or a smoothie,” says Clark. (Most coffee outlets now sell healthier options.)
Alternatively, if your workplace has a kitchen, keep porridge sachets or a box of wholegrain cereal in your desk drawer for a DIY brekkie at the office.
Unhealthy lunch habits
Here are the three main lunchtime pitfalls. Do any of them sound familiar?
Skipping lunch altogether when you’re busy: “Cue an afternoon energy slump, biscuit binge and unhealthy choices before or at dinner,” says Clark.
Buying lunch: Most of us buy lunch (rather than bring it to work) at least a couple of times a week. “But store-bought sandwiches can be laden with butter, mayo or creamy dressings, so they’re loaded with kilojoules,” says Clark.
Eating on the go: “If you shove a sandwich down while multitasking, your brain won’t even register you’ve eaten,” she says. “Also, when you’re distracted, you’re more likely to eat quickly and overeat.”
How to avoid them
Allow yourself to buy lunch once a week, but bring it from home on other days. “If you don’t have time to make something, stash a few supplies at work. Keep wholegrain crisp bread and canned tuna in your desk drawer; and tomato, cucumber, lettuce and low-fat cheese in the fridge to make your own lunch,” says Clark. “You can also add these to store-bought lunches that aren’t as nutritionally balanced as you’d like.”
Make health-smart choices
When you do need to buy lunch, remember that many cafe and takeaway products now display the kilojoule count on their nutrition-information panels. Look for one with fewer than 2500kJ, (or 1700kJ if you're trying to lose weight). In general, sushi rolls (minus the tempura options and Japanese mayonnaise) and wholegrain sandwiches, especially those you can build yourself, are good choices. Steer clear of mayo-filled white rolls and sandwiches, creamy vegie-poor pasta salads, and pies and pastries.
Take a break
Eat lunch away from your desk so you can concentrate on what you’re doing, rather than shovelling it in between emails. If you take time to chew and savour your meal, your stomach will be better able to tell your brain when it’s feeling full — and you’ll stop eating.
Working late without eating
Research confirms the connection between working overtime and gaining weight. One study showed that when employees regularly put in extra hours, they gained as much as 15kg over a 28-year period. And the link isn’t as mysterious as you may think.
Consider the way working overtime messes with your eating plan. “Putting in long hours usually results in skipping meals, munching high-kilojoule snacks and grabbing a takeaway on the way home, because you’re simply too tired to cook,” says Clark.
How to avoid it
It’s one thing for your boss to expect you to work late, but quite another for he or she to expect you to go hungry.
“Make sure you break for dinner at a reasonable hour,” says Clark. “If needs be, pop out to a supermarket or the healthiest local cafe to buy food for later. If you know in advance that you’re going to be working late, or if it’s a regular occurrence, get into the habit of making extra portions of meals when you’re at home and bring them to work.”
Not all ready-made meals are bad, either. Choose those that provide fewer than 1700kJ, 700mg sodium and 7g sat fat, as well as more than 15g protein and at least one serve of vegetables.
To boost the amount of vegetables in your meal and keep you feeling full, pop a single-serve sachet of frozen vegies into the microwave, too.
When you’re frantically busy, the thought of food hardly enters your mind. But spend hours on tedious tasks, and you’ll probably find yourself reaching for anything edible. And with colleagues bringing in birthday cakes, biscuits or other tempting treats, the office can be a real danger zone.
“It’s well documented that when food is readily accessible, you eat more,” says Clark. In one US study, researchers gave chocolates to workers of a healthy weight, placing them either on their desks or two metres away. We bet you can guess the result — the staff who had chocolates sitting on their desks ate more of them each day than those who had to get up and walk to them.
And let’s not forget the mindless consumption of coffee-shop drinks and their copious amounts of full-cream milk, sugar or syrup. “They’re bigger than you’d make yourself, and even a small skim latte can contain about 400kJ,” says Clark. “Still, research shows we don’t allow for empty drink kilojoules by eating less during the day.”
How to avoid it
Hide it away
“The first rule? Stow any food other than fruit and water out of sight — and out of mind,” advises Clark. “Stock up on healthy snacks, such as small packets of trail mix or natural popcorn.”
Make a group plan
Get colleagues on board by suggesting you all stop bringing in biscuits to share, or that those who want them keep them hidden in a shared cupboard. Or go for treats like a colourful fruit platter.
“It’s okay to indulge sometimes; the occasional treat is part of a balanced diet,” says Clark. “If someone offers you a slice of birthday cake, you can have some, but make it a small piece.”
Cut the daily coffee
Think of the money you’ll save by opting out of the coffee run. Brew your own, and you could save up to $20 a week. That’ll soon add up, so you can splurge on something special, like a massage.
Sitting down all day
How often have you phoned or emailed a colleague who works on the floor above you — or even sits just across the room from you — when you could get up and visit them instead?
Is this really such a problem? Yes, confirms Australian research, which reveals that the more often you take breaks, the smaller your waist and body-mass index (BMI) are likely to be. The simple act of standing can double your metabolic rate, but sitting causes fat to circulate in the bloodstream.
And let’s not forget ‘desk derrière’. A recent Tel Aviv University lab study concluded that the buttock muscles of inactive office workers may be both shrinking and deteriorating as a result of underuse while their fat cells are accumulating — twice as fast.
And that’s not all. “Sitting for hours causes muscles in the back and glutes to overstretch, while our abdominals and hip flexors shorten, leading to muscle imbalances and back pain,” explains physiotherapist Liz Ebelthite. “When we then head out for exercise, we’re more likely to tear ligaments, strain hamstrings or suffer from lower back pain — and end up even more inactive than we were.”
How to avoid it
“Include more activity in your day,” advises Ebelthite. “Could you offset a sedentary job by walking or cycling all (or part of) the way to and from work? Or could you take a brisk walk or join an exercise class at lunchtime?”
Get up from your chair whenever you can, whether it’s to make coffee or have a face-to-face chat with those colleagues you’d normally call or email. “Take the stairs, not the lift (climbing two at a time really engages your glutes!), and stand up to make phone calls,” she adds.
There are even exercises you can do at your desk; try some buttock clenches, shoulder rolls and ankle circles.
Part of the problem is that we become absorbed in work and forget to move. Try downloading a screen-break prompt tool, such as Big Stretch Reminder... it’s free!
Friday-night drinks, corporate lunches and conference cuisine all add up to unwanted kilojoules in the form of cakes, alcohol, three-course meals, buffets and endless supplies of unhealthy finger food.
These occasions can be real traps, particularly for people who usually limit their intake of cakes, biscuits and sweets. By viewing such foods as forbidden in everyday life, you may eat more when exposed to them. This is fine if special occasions are just that (special and occasional), but if your workplace seems to be in a constant state of celebration, the weight can start to creep on.
How to avoid them
“From now on, your mantra needs to be ‘plan ahead’,” says Clark. “If you know you’ve got a lunch or party that’s going to bump up the amount you eat that day, make the rest of the day’s meals more modest.
“At the buffet, check out everything on offer before you start piling food onto your plate. That way, you’ll choose only what you really fancy. Even if it’s finger food, take what you want, then move away from the bowl or table.”
The same goes for canapés. “I advise people to think for a second before they pop something in their mouth,” says Clark. “Consider your weight-loss goals and whether or not this particular mouthful is worth it. If it is, fine; savour it and don’t feel guilty. But if it isn’t, say no. You’ll feel all the better for it.”
Be water wise
It’s easy to drink too much at functions as well, so alternate alcoholic drinks with water. And don’t let other people top up your glass — it’s the surest way to lose track of how much you’ve drunk.
Business trip traps
Travelling for work can wreak havoc on your entire routine. “Healthy food options aren’t always available at petrol stations, train stations and airports,” says Clark. “Hotel food can be rich, and minibar snacks oversized, salty and full of fat and kilojoules. Those all-you-can-eat breakfasts are a healthy eater’s nemesis.” Add hectic schedules that mess with your preferred mealtimes and leave little time for exercise, and it’s no wonder your good intentions fly out the window.
How to avoid them
Take snacks with you when you travel, find out about the food outlets at your destination, and call the hotel with any special dietary requests before you arrive. You could also ask them to clear your minibar in advance. “Don’t start thinking that you’re helpless, that there’s nothing you can do when travelling,” says Clark. “It’s simply untrue.”
Stay in control
Remember: you’re the customer, so at mealtimes, you can decline butter, ask for more vegies or dressings on the side, request fruit salad for dessert if it’s not on the menu, and have plates cleared as soon as you’ve finished so you don’t carry on picking. These kinds of changes can make a big difference to your kilojoule intake.”
Plan to exercise
Pack your gym gear or cossie; most hotels have gyms or pools. Or find a short route to walk in the morning.
New home office rules
Whether you work from home or you’re a full-time parent, you can still fall victim to workplace-weight-gain traps – especially with a fully stocked kitchen at your disposal!
Tackle this with a little structure. Set yourself a traditional eight-hour day. Ensure you’re dressed and ready to go by the time your working day starts – no more typing on the sofa in your PJs! Get out of the house before work, at lunchtime and at the end of your day, even if it’s simply to post a letter. This helps mark the divide between work and home.
To avoid all-day grazing (or skipping lunch and bingeing at 4pm), schedule times for lunch, and morning and afternoon breaks. Think of the time you save (by not having to commute to an office) as your exercise time.