The correct and incorrect way to eat at work

Most people eat the wrong way and for the wrong reasons, especially at work, says Karen Koenig

woman eating salad on her work desk

There you are, slouched at your desk, staring into space because you are so not into finishing that report for your boss. You’re tired, frustrated, devoid of ideas and suddenly hungry. You fish around in your purse for an energy bar that you may have put there weeks ago and, when it’s nowhere to be found, you start whipping open your desk drawers in the hopes of discovering—well, you’re not sure exactly what.

There are five ways we might view food at work and the above description is what I would call the impulsive approach. It involves no planning, no true hunger, no thought paid to whether eating is the appropriate activity called for. Food pops into your mind and you’re off and running.

A second method is eating by the clock. No matter what you’re in the midst of doing, when it’s the time you usually chow down, you cease all physical and mental activity—and eat. You may not be hungry or the slightest bit interested in food. You may be rolling merrily along answering emails or phone calls, jotting down after-meeting notes or in the midst of a creative process with your ideas flowing wildly. But because it’s time for breakfast [or lunch or dinner], you eat.

A third approach is putting off eating as long as possible because you want to lose weight and believe [in spite of your history] that if you don’t eat during the day, you’ll be able to slide through the evening with maybe just a salad or a fruit and toddle off to bed having barely eaten a thing. So, at work, you throw yourself into every project you’re given, avoid the lunchroom, busy yourself to keep your mind off the gnawing in your belly, and feel stoked that you have such amazing self-control. Of course, by the time you arrive home you’re famished and hit the fridge before you do anything else, and don’t stop eating until you groggily stumble into bed sick in belly and at heart.

A fourth take on work eating is believing you’re too busy to nourish yourself. You tell yourself you have far too many vital tasks to accomplish and that taking time out for a nosh or a sit down meal just won’t cut it. Rather than speaking to your ability to be productive, this mindset really says that you don’t care enough about yourself to feed your body in a timely and nurturing fashion. It may also say that you believe being industrious or taking care of others are the only ways to feel good about yourself.

A fifth approach is to use food to liven up your day. If you’re bored or not engaged in work, you might seek food as an emotional pick-me-up. In this scenario, you never really let yourself get hungry at work because you’re always eating, a little of this or a lot of that. To you, food equals fun, excitement and feeling blissed out. Rather than seek true enjoyment, you settle for a candy bar or a bag of chips.

Are you missing the point?

Whether you’re an impulsive eater, an eater by the clock, an abstainer in order to lose weight, a food self-denier or a fun-seeker, you’re missing the point of what food is for.

Here are some of the things food is not meant to do: fill time, be your go-to strategy for managing stress, a way to avoid doing something you’re not into doing, be the highlight of your day or your best friend. Primarily, food is for fuelling your body so that it can get to work and have energy left over for play. Secondarily, food is for sensory pleasure. It tastes good and may even trigger dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitter, in our brains.

Change your relationship with food

If you’re ready to improve your relationship with food at work, here are some simple tips to get you started.

1. Connect with your appetite

Recognise the signs of true hunger and eat when you’re moderately hungry, when food actually tastes best. Check in with your appetite frequently during the day by asking, “How hungry am I?” and “Am I hungry enough to eat?” If you have a set lunch or dinner time and don’t want the whole sandwich you brought, save the rest for later unless you’re certain you won’t have time to eat it.

2. Plan ahead

Consider how you will eat whatever meals occur during your work hours. Whether you’re a secretary, an airline pilot, a factory worker or a nurse, if you’ve been at your job any length of time, you know in general when you get hungry and when you find the time to eat. It’s easy to prepare something at home and bring along a snack in case you get the real munchies between meals.

3. Find a peaceful setting and eat without distraction

Maybe you can’t leave your office, but can swing around your chair to face the window. Sit as far away from the computer as possible so you’re not tempted to distract yourself from eating. Create a small, clean place for your food. If you’re in a busy setting, go outside. If there’s no other quiet place, eat in your car with some great music playing in the background.

4. Eat mindfully

Mindful eating means devoting your full attention to the food in front of you. Set the stage by sitting down and intentionally relaxing with a few deep breaths. Put aside any work you’ve been doing and push away any thoughts but those that are about food. Look at what you’re eating and take small bites. Chew and chew some more to release flavour, so your taste buds can do their job.

5. Stop when you’re 80 per cent full or 100 per cent satisfied

Fullness is a quantitative measure, while satisfaction describes the quality of the meal. While you’re eating, ask yourself, “Am I still hungry?”, “Am I satisfied yet?” When you reach either state, pay attention and make a conscious decision to stop eating because you’re done.

If you dine out at lunch, continue to stay connected to appetite. Consider how hungry you are and what you’re craving. Stay tuned to your appetite signals by not eating when you’re talking and not talking when you’re eating. Pace your eating with the slowest person at the table.

Think about what you can do to make eating at work more mindful and satisfying. Pick one action that will make a difference and do it today. Keep practising mindful eating and soon new habits will take hold. And pat yourself on the back for each positive baby step you take toward eating well at work.

This was first publised in the July 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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