The work trap

The work trap

Here are some tips – or a wake-up call – for those of us who are ‘too busy’ to eat healthily.

You know who you are!

  • You’re probably reading this article while you stand in the checkout queue after dashing into the supermarket on the way home.
  • You’re dying to get out of your work clothes and into your comfy trackpants.
  • It’s been a huge day. You’re starving and looking to grab something for dinner before you settle down to a few more hours of work that you had to bring home.
  • You try hard to be healthy and probably made it to the gym for a cardio session at 6am this morning, but by the time you showered and dressed for the day you had no time for breakfast. There’s nothing except bars and shakes to eat at your gym anyway, and you have to beat the traffic to get to work on time.
  • You logged on at work to begin battling the day of endless emails with the first of many coffees in your hand.
  • After surviving a morning of meetings you caved in at morning tea and bought a mega muffin to replace the missed breakfast.
  • You were still full at lunch from eating the muffin so continued working at your desk with your 3rd, or was it the 4th  coffee (or have you lost count?).
  • By 3.30pm you had a horrendous headache so scoffed a packet of chips from the snack box and washed it down with an energy drink to perk you up.
  • And now here you are……thinking you’ve earned the frozen Indian curry and wine that’s lying in your shopping basket.

No need to look over your shoulder, I haven’t been stalking you. You’re just doing what every other over-worked business woman or man is doing who ends up suffering with weight-gain, poor bowel habits, fatigue and nutritional deficiencies.

How did you get into these poor eating patterns?

Chances are you schedule everything in your life in advance, from hair appointments and golf games with your buddies to catching up with family and friends. You just don’t seem to have enough hours in a day, but you never let anyone down, right? Wrong! You may be letting yourself down.

  • Do you regularly skip meal or snack breaks throughout your day?
  • Do you only go food shopping when you decide to cook at home that night or when you’ve run out of loo paper?
  • Do you suffer with constipation?
  • Do you reward yourself with food and drink when the day gets tough?

If you have answered yes to these questions, then your health could be at risk through poor food management.

Although most of us understand the importance of making healthy food choices when it comes to our own health, many of us make poor food selections when faced with ‘healthy’ food versus ‘treat’ food.

And it all starts with poor time management. To play ‘beat the clock’ when it comes to getting work done, we often encroach on our ‘food’ time. Nourishment disappears and the poor food patterns emerge as we ‘treat’ ourselves with high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt convenience foods as rewards for ‘giving-up’ our scheduled lunch and snack breaks.

Is your job making you sick?

Being desk-bound can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. A 2005 survey by business magazine NBR found some startling results. 1000 executives responded to the online survey, which found:

  • 48% of executives said they felt stressed
  • 42% of executives said they were overweight

These facts alone translate to an increased risk of heart disease over the general population; especially in the 30–34 years age group.

This is in line with overseas research. Research in the USA and Japan found people who work more than 50 hours per week had a far higher incidence of high blood pressure than those who work fewer hours. Belgian researchers found workers in demanding jobs who had little decision-making authority had an increase in blood pressure, even when they were sleeping.

Bad eating habits at work can also affect your productivity. A report by the UN International Labour Office found that obesity accounts for as much as 7% of total health costs in industrialised countries, and that fat workers were twice as likely as fit workers to miss work.

What’s happening to you on the inside because of these poor dietary patterns?


The lack of a fibrous breakfast (such as a bran-based cereal or multigrain bread) coupled with the fact that the bakery items many people select at morning tea are white flour-based (such as cakes, muffins and sausage rolls) means there is a serious lack of fibre in the adult diet. We need approximately 25–30g of fibre a day to prevent constipation and ensure good bowel health.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

The symptoms of IBS such as wind and bloating often followed by an urgency to have a bowel motion, is a common complaint among business people. IBS can be the body’s way of letting you know it is stressed. Fatty, rich foods can aggravate IBS, as can too much caffeine. A cup of coffee on an empty stomach can induce this feeling, as can a creamy sauce at a business luncheon or a greasy plate of nachos on-the-run.


You might not think you are eating a lot of food during the day, but what you’re eating may be VERY high in energy (kilojoules). A sedentary office worker will not burn off the empty kilojoules hidden in convenience foods munched on ‘randomly’ in the day. The ‘quick fix’ foods you snack on from the petrol station on the way home, from the vending machine while waiting at the airport for your delayed flight, and the handful of lollies pinched from the office jar are all adding to New Zealand adults’ growing waistlines. Similarly, the two or three glasses (big glasses!) of alcohol you drink every night after work are adding energy you’re unlikely to lose.

Fatigue and nutritional deficiencies

Chances are you pop a multivitamin most days with the hope that it helps alleviate the constant fatigue you feel. Well, here is a valuable piece of information: multivitamins do NOT supply energy to the body. Vitamins and minerals are, however, necessary for all metabolic processes in the body. So if you feel better taking a multivitamin, it’s possible your diet is nutrient-deficient and responds to the micronutrients you are getting through your supplement. Wouldn’t it be better to ‘fix’ your diet through a change in eating patterns rather than relying on a supplement?

Break the cycle of poor eating

It’s time to put some of those organisational skills you use in your work life to use in your home life. Let’s start at the beginning of the day…


There is no rule to say you must have breakfast as soon as your feet touch the floor, but you should have food within two hours of waking up. The consumption of cereal for breakfast is encouraged rather than toast, for the specific reason that we don’t add a yellow fat (butter or margarine) to a cereal but we almost always do to warm toast. Make toast a ‘weekend occasion’ or even every second day, but try a fibre-rich cereal, with low-fat milk (for calcium and protein) and fruit (for important antioxidants) at least three or four times a week. If you’re not fond of the taste of bran cereals, try combining a box of what you like (like puffed rice cereal) with a box of what is good for you (like bran flakes). The cereal you like will help disguise the taste of the bran. If you can’t face food as soon as you wake up, try eating a banana in the car on the way to work and have the cereal and milk at your desk.


The current recommendation for coffee drinking is no more than six cups a day – however that is single shots; not the double shots you often hear people asking for at cafés! Caffeine can also inhibit iron absorption so try allowing a one-hour space between drinking tea, coffee or cola and eating food. This will allow time for the iron in that food to be absorbed.

To ease the affect of caffeine on the gut (for those who suspect caffeine may be causing their IBS), try swapping to lemon, mint or ginger herbal teas – or at the very least, alternate between ‘real’ coffee and decaffeinated.

Morning tea

If morning tea has become a ritual ‘bikkie binge’ or the girl at the café bags you up your ‘usual’ sausage roll to take away, now is the time to break the habit. Invest in a fruit bowl for your desk. We all need a minimum of two pieces of fruit every day – so arrive at the start of a five-day working week with 10 pieces of fruit. Choose non-messy varieties like bananas, mandarins, apples etc. You could also use fruit pottles to compliment the fresh fruit you bring. Fruit pottles travel well and won’t go ‘off’ as the week progresses.

If you can’t do without a sausage roll, aim to eat one no more than once a week. To reduce biscuit binging, try to have a piece of fruit in between each biscuit; this should slow you down!


To avoid being called into impromptu meetings, try and leave the office at lunchtime. You could have a plan to get more movement into your day by walking somewhere to meet a friend for lunch or at the very least, just get outside for some exposure to daylight and fresh air. Always schedule out lunchtime in your diary or work calendar so that meetings are not placed in that time slot. Don’t feel guilty for ‘taking’ your lunch break. You will be more productive in the afternoon if you have healthy food, fluid, fresh air and a rest.

Afternoon tea

Many business people are working later, so dinner is often well after 7.30pm. If you managed to eat lunch at 1pm, it’s still a long way to dinner. Organising a balanced afternoon tea can make a big difference to your energy levels for the rest of the afternoon and may prevent petrol station grazing on the way home from work.


Make a menu plan for the week ahead and stick to it. This helps you purchase groceries for healthy meals and takes the ‘guess work’ out of ‘what are you having for dinner?’ when you walk in the door from work feeling starving.

In addition to a pre-planned healthy menu, enforcing three or four alcohol-free nights a week can be a good way to really reduce excess energy in your week (and your liver will applaud you for it).

The grown-up lunchbox

Having a healthy lunch on hand when you’re busy at work is all about getting organised ahead of time.

At the beginning of the week, bring a supply of easy-to-eat bits and pieces to work and stash them in a drawer of your desk. Include:

  • small cans of salmon and tuna
  • small cans of baked beans, chilli beans, chickpeas, lentils
  • crackers and crispbreads in an airtight container
  • packets of tortillas
  • packets of roasted nuts like almonds and Brazil nuts
  • packets or cans of instant soup
  • pots of fruit in juice
  • ready-to-eat rice pudding snacks
  • muesli bars (look for less than 10% fat)
  • rice crackers or chips

Also keep in your drawer:

  • small bottles of olive or avocado oil
  • small bottles of balsamic, red or white wine vinegar
  • sea salt, pepper grinder, spices of your choice

For the fridge, put together a plastic container containing easy lunch ingredients:

  • bread (whole grain, pita, bagels)
  • salad leaves
  • hummus
  • cottage cheese, feta or other cheese of your choice
  • vegetables like avocado, cucumber, peppers, carrots
  • packets of ham, salami and sliced chicken

From these basics you can make lots of easy lunches, including:

  • toast with hummus and tomato
  • chickpea, cucumber, tomato and feta salad
  • tuna salad with avocado, lettuce and tomato in a pita pocket
  • soup and toast
  • chicken and salad sandwiches
  • baked beans on toast
  • tortilla wrap with beans and chicken

Simple lunch ideas for busy days

  • baked beans on two slices whole grain toast (high fibre and low fat)
  • smoked salmon (buy in vacuum packs) on two slices whole grain toast. A bit more ‘posh’ than ordinary canned fish but a yummy way to get your omega-3
  • add 1/2 packet of instant noodles to a vegetable soup
  • heat 1/2 container pumpkin soup; serve over leftover steamed vegetables from last night (broccoli, carrot, etc)
  • medium pita, halved and toasted, a thin spread of pesto, add feta, mesclun and halved cherry tomatoes

Healthy workday snack ideas

Avoid the snackbox with these healthy snack suggestions:

  • tart dried apple
  • fruit and nut mix (1/3 cup)
  • 1 x small uncoated muesli bar
  • pretzel bows (a small handful)
  • baby carrots
  • low-fat fromage frais with fruit (feels more decadent than just a yoghurt)
  • whole grain crackers with hummus or cottage cheese
  • fruit toast with chocolate spread (instead of snack box chocolate bars)
  • nuts and dried fruit
  • freshly made or pre-bottled smoothies
  • unsweetened popcorn
  • bagel chips
  • fruit and oat cookies
  • yoghurt or dairy food
  • pikelets and spreads

We are working longer and harder in our busy, stressful world – to promote well-being, take the time to choose foods that will maintain a healthy body.

Author: Nikki Hart

Healthy Food Guide

First published: Apr 2006

2018-05-07 14:42:59

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