Is work making you fat?

Is work making you fat?

Nutritionist Caitlin Reid identifies the classic weight-gain traps to be found in any workplace, on the road, or for stay-at-home mums… and shows you simple steps to avoid them.

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 such as 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 body shape. Get up 10 minutes earlier each morning or pack something healthy the night before to take to eat 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.


Studies have established the link between working overtime and weight gain – as much as 15kg over 10 years. 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 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 are generally laden with unnecessary kilojoules, fat, sugar and salt. Studies have also found 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 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.

Or 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.


There are two big lunch pitfalls. One is 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%of workers purchase lunch two or more times a week.

This wouldn’t be a problem if we were all buying whole grain salad rolls, but most bought lunches come from fast-food outlets or sandwich shops which pile on far more butter, cheese or mayonnaise than we ever would at home. Not to mention workers trying to be healthy by buying salads which are highly likely to be drenched in a fatty (and salty) dressing – they may 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, cucumber, 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.


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% more mental strain, which has been linked with higher levels of abdominal obesity.

How to beat it

The way to escape the effects of stress is to learn how to manage it, increase your tolerance levels, and develop 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 at home – by the time you go to buy them you may have calmed down. Instead, keep healthy snacks at hand for all occasions.


Technology saves us time, right? In some ways, yes, but in others ways technology actually makes us less productive. It can lead 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 re-focus on the job at hand. These interruptions account for 28% of the average nine-to-five 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 which arrive via mobile phones and Blackberries throughout the night. This activity keeps stress levels escalated and interferes with quality sleep. Interrupted sleep inhibits the release of the growth hormone which tells your body to break-down fat for fuel. Instead, our bodies hold on to extra kilojoules instead of burning them.

How to beat it

To avoid being ‘on call’ 24/7, set specific times to check emails, speak with colleagues and return calls. Switch off all technology before going to bed and write a list of jobs which need to be finished the next day. If you wake up during the night, jot down the thought – deal with it the next morning when you’re more alert.


Friday night after-work drinks, birthdays, farewells, corporate lunches and conference cuisine all lead to unnecessary kilojoules from cakes, alcohol, 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, especially 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 ‘function’ food, rate your hunger level. Only eat when you are hungry and watch portion sizes. Have a plan when you are 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.

Shift work

Shift work has become commonplace. It’s a fact of life for many of us, but it can also wreak havoc with our 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 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. These all make weight-loss and weight maintenance difficult.

How to beat it

Getting into a regular pattern is the most important thing.

Make the first meal of the day the biggest. When at work, eat small, frequent meals containing low-GI carbohydrates and protein, but low in fat. This helps 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. And regular exercise will help you sleep.

Author: Caitlin Reid

Healthy Food Guide

First published: Sep 2009

2017-11-29 14:36:21

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