Healthy Eating at Work

Balancing Nutrition and Workplace Demands

Editor’s Note: We hope that Human Resources staff will make healthier workplaces a priority, if you have not already. This article has rich resources at the end that are worth a look.

Warm weather usually makes us more active and often inspires thoughts of weight loss. But old notions of crash dieting so we can look good in swimsuits are long gone. Instead, a health alarm has gone off. Obesity rates among American adults have doubled since 1980 (from 15 to 32 percent) and 66 percent of us are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Not surprisingly, the CDC says that bringing the nation’s obesity rate back down to 15 percent by 2010 is a “national health objective,” especially since, according to www.everydaychoices.org, a Web site sponsored by the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association, two-thirds of Americans die from heart disease, cancer, stroke or diabetes, all of which are associated with being overweight or inactivity or both. Everyday Choices is focusing part of its campaign, called Sisterhood, on African-American women, who are at even higher risk for these disorders.

Health experts recommend that Americans – at a minimum – stop gaining weight and, ideally, lose it by balancing calorie intake and calorie usage everyday. For example, the American Heart Association on its “Live Fat-Sensibly‘” website says “a healthy diet balances the number of calories you eat with the number of calories you burn, and emphasizes eating vegetables, fruits, whole-grain/high-fiber foods, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, lean meats, poultry, fish (at least twice a week), and limiting how much saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol you eat. Also, drink fewer beverages and eat fewer foods with added sugars, and choose and prepare foods with little or no salt.”

But most adults work, so any changes in eating habits must be balanced with the demands of making a living. Healthy food choices and time devoted to physical activity must be scheduled around meetings and time spent in front of a computer, behind the wheel or on public transportation. Following are some tips that might make it easier to make better food choices at work.

Bring your lunch and snacks from home so as to control portion size, calories, and fat content

Packing food from home definitely takes time and may or may not save you money depending upon the cost and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in your neighborhood. But cooking at home or buying and packaging your own lunch and snacks will definitely help you control portion sizes, calories and fat content. Because most workplaces have microwaves and refrigerators, the range of food you can bring from home is unlimited, as long as you have good spill-proof containers (i.e., plastic tubs or resealable bags). The American Heart Association recommends packing low-calorie, high-fiber, nutrient-rich snacks:

  • apples or fresh fruit of any kind
  • carrots and celery sticks
  • breadsticks
  • broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • cherry or grape tomatoes
  • bagels
  • raisins
  • unsalted nuts or seeds
  • low-fat cheese or yogurt

The website recommends whole fruit because fruit juice does not provide the fiber of whole fruit and therefore is not as good at satisfying hunger.

Nutrition information is available at some fast food places (if you look for it)

Some fast food chains and other casual dining establishments now provide nutritional information, but you may have to hunt for it. McDonald’s for example, provides calorie counts and information on sodium, fats, fiber, sugars, and cholesterol on the back of its tray liners. Wendy’s makes much of the same information available on its Web site, as does Corner Bakery. A more comprehensive, though possibly outdated, look at calorie and fat content for meals offered by chain restaurants is available in Choose to Lose, 3rd edition (1999), which outlines a weight loss program originally developed by Dr. Ron Goor and Nancy Goor to help patients control cholesterol (ISBN: 0-395-97097-0).

The American Heart Association Web site says that if you must eat at fast food chains, consider the following:

  • Avoid value-sized servings. A “super-sized” meal usually means more fat, sugars, sodium, and calories, something that may cost you your health even as it saves money.
  • A baked potato is healthier than French fries, but only if you enjoy it with vegetables or fat-free sour cream and avoid the butter and full-fat sour cream or cheese.
  • Choose grilled chicken sandwiches over burgers or fried or breaded chicken. At McDonald’s for example, the difference between “grilled” and “crispy” chicken is 80 calories.
  • Avoid double-meat sandwiches. A serving of meat (2 to 3 ounces) is about the size of a deck of cards. Usually one serving at a fast-food place is sufficient.
  • Don’t add bacon to your sandwiches. It offers few nutrients and a lot of fat. Instead, use pickles, onions, lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mustard to add flavor.
  • Avoid fried fish sandwiches. Go for broiled, baked or grilled.
  • Hold the mayo, including the “special sauce.” It’s high in calories.
  • Ask for a wheat or whole-grain bun. Some places do offer them.
  • Avoid regular sodas. Drink water, diet soda, or skim or low-fat milk.

At other restaurants, plan your order in advance to control calories, fat

The American Heart Association urges you to talk to your server when dining out to control your calorie and fat intake as much as possible:

  • Ask the server what oils the food is cooked or prepared in. The most desirable oils are monounsaturated (olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil) and polyunsaturated (soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil).
  • Ask for substitutions (e.g., baked potato instead of fries or onion rings – or salad, fruit or vegetables instead of mayonnaise-laden coleslaw)
  • Avoid all-you-can-eat or buffet specials, for obvious reasons.
  • If you’re familiar with the restaurant, try to determine in advance what you will order so you won’t be tempted to order something your calorie budget cannot afford.
  • Avoid ordering appetizers, cocktails or bread and butter.
  • Ask to have butter, cream cheese, salad dressings, gravies and sauces served on the side, so you can control how much you use.
  • Ask the server for a to-go box with your order. Then cut it in half and put half in the box for later before you even begin to eat.
  • Choose entrees that feature chicken, seafood or lean meat.
  • Be selective at salad bars. Choose fresh greens, raw vegetables, fresh fruits, garbanzo beans and the like. Avoid pasta salads, marinated salads, and fruit salads with whipped cream.
  • Choose desserts carefully. Fresh fruit, angel cake, and sherbet are good alternatives to higher-calorie desserts. Or split one with your dining companions. Use skim or one-percent milk in coffee instead of cream or half-and-half.

Further resources:

Websites urging us to get more active and change our eating habits abound. Among the most useful:

  • American Dietetic Association (www.eatright.org)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.(http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/nutrition/nutrition_for_everyone/healthy_weight/index.htm) Includes sections on “How to Use Fruits and Vegetables to Help Manage Your Weight” (http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/nutrition/nutrition_for_everyone/healthy_weight/weight.htm), a Body Mass Index (BMI) calculator (http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/bmi/index.htm), and a section on Physical Activity for Everyone (http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/physical/index.htm)
  • www.everydaychoices.org: a website funded by the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Heart Association. Includes “Sisterhood is Healthy,” part of a three-year public health campaign to increase awareness among African-American women of how lifestyle choices affect their risk of cancer, heart attack, diabetes, and stroke. Also provides online “health tools” that allow you to:
    • assess your current levels of nutrition and physical fitness;
    • determine your risk of diabetes;
    • learn your target heart rate for walking, dancing, or otherwise working out;
    • calculate your body mass index (BMI), a measure of whether your weight is healthy;
    • learn how to read food labels and assess nutritional quality through a “virtual grocery store tour;” and
    • join ClubPed, an online club that allows you to track your walking and share experiences with others via a message board.
  • For inspiring stories of weight loss, see The National Weight Control Registry. (http://www.nwcr.ws/) The Registry is not a weight loss program, but rather a list of people (currently more than 5000) who have achieved a weight loss of 30 pounds and have kept it off for at least one year. Participants were identified as early as 1994 for an ongoing scientific study. Names are kept confidential, but a few have agreed to be profiled as NWCR success stories.
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest (www.cspinet.org)
    Perhaps best known as the group that revealed the true calorie content of movie popcorn, their monthly “food porn” designations are pretty interesting, too. Usually, it’s restaurant fare, desserts and highly-packaged stuff with lots of calories and little nutritional value.
  • American Heart Association (www.americanheart.org)
    The source for much of this article, this website also has a section on children’s heart health. The organization backed April 25 as Walk at Work Day and May 6 as Power Sunday, an effort to alert African-American congregations to the dangers of stroke. May is Stroke Awareness month.
  • Latino Health Access (www.latinohealthaccess.org)
    Based in Santa Ana, California, this group has been particularly active in identifying the economic and environmental factors that contribute to childhood obesity. Its executive director, Dr. America Bracho, was featured on a PBS panel discussion that followed the April 11, 2007, PBS broadcast of Fat: What No One Is Telling You, a 90-minute documentary that PBS developed as part of its “Take One Step” weight control campaign.
  • PBS “Take One Step” Health Campaign (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/takeonestep/)
    Visit this website to watch Fat: What No One is Telling You, a 90-minute documentary that “explores the myriad psychological, physiological, and environmental factors that make it so tough to shed pounds and keep them off.” Following the April 11 broadcast of the documentary (produced by Twin Cities Public Television), many stations aired a 30-minute panel discussion hosted by Dr. Nancy Snyderman, chief medical editor for NBC News. The video is available for purchase from PBS ($24.99). The Web site also includes print resources (i.e., .pdf files ) developed by the food industry-funded America on the Move Foundation (e.g., 100 Ways to Eat Healthier, 100 Ways to Add Steps, 100 Ways to Surround Your Family with Success, Activity Conversion Charts for Adults & Kids, Quick Tips: Using a Step Counter).
  • America on the Move Foundation (www.americaonthemove.org). Formerly the Partnership to Promote Healthy Eating and Active Living and sponsored by a number of food companies, including the makers of Splenda® and Lean Cuisine®. Co-founder James O. Hill, Ph.D., participated in the panel discussion that followed the Wednesday, April 11, broadcast of Fat: What No One Is Telling You, a 90-minute documentary developed by PBS as part of its “Take One Step” weight control campaign. Corporate sponsors of America on the Move must agree to implement workplace programs designed to promote healthy eating and active living for employees. See (http://aom.americaonthemove.org/site/c.krLXJ3PJKuG/b.1776817/k.9981/Individuals.htm) for mention of the Worksite Coordinator Toolkit. Individuals join for free. Members who join for a six-week weight loss challenge get the following online:
  • daily menu planner;
  • log for physical activity;
  • “challenge buddies” who offer motivation and support;
  • tips on recipes and cooking; and
  • ways to share their stories and chart their progress.

    AOM’s Web site includes a section entitled “Family Focus,” which offers tips on healthy lunch boxes, snacks, and drinks for children, and help for parents concerned about overweight children and teens. (http://www.splenda.com/page.jhtml?id=splenda/childweight/brochures.inc).