Career Fare: The “Un-Health” Benefits

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Declare a No-Food Zone
Most of us tend to eat unconsciously at our desks, at the computer or on the telephone. To combat these forces of “diet destruction,” set up a neutral territory where unhealthy food cannot be left out or stored. This “safety zone” might be no bigger than your own desk, but that’s an ideal place to start.

Take It Off
Do you really think that bowl of candy on your desk is harmless? After all, a few pieces of candy that are 20 or 30 calories each couldn’t really matter, could they? The problem is those calories do add up. Research shows you eat more food when it’s left out on your desk — more than twice as much as when it’s kept behind closed doors. So keep all foods, including candy, out of sight. “And keep apples, oranges or other healthy snacks in your desk drawer for when a snack attack hits,” advises nutritionist Peggy O’Shea, M.B.A., R.D., of Brookline, Mass.

Make It Social
There’s strength in numbers! Team up with a co-worker determined to lose weight. “An office diet buddy can provide you with emotional support and reminders,” says David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., professor of public health at Yale University School of Medicine and author of The Way to Eat (Sourcebooks, 2002). “Walk together. Exchange recipes. Share information by taking turns looking up nutrition facts about a food you both like and help one another make better and more interesting choices.”

Gather menus from all local restaurants, as well as convenient take-out and fast food eateries. Then scan them for healthy foods. Narrow your choices to those that sound best. For instance, think grilled or baked chicken instead of chicken parmigiana. Then call up to inquire how the dishes you’ve chosen are prepared. Don’t be shy about finding out what you need to know. You might ask, “Will you make special orders? Is this dish fried? Is it cooked with oil or butter? Can you steam the vegetables or fish? What do you use to make the sauce? Can you prepare it without the cheese/sauce? Can you serve the sauce on the side? How many ounces is the serving of beef, chicken or fish? Do you offer any other ‘healthy’ choices that are not listed on the menu?”

Don’t refrain from making special requests because you’re embarrassed. You are the only one who will suffer. Just to make things simpler, I often tell the server that I’m allergic to certain foods. Remember, if you don’t care for a particular food — say gorgonzola cheese on a cobb salad — you wouldn’t have a problem asking your server to leave that off.

Once you compile your list of approved restaurants and your new healthy menu choices, you can be even more organized and create a phone or fax list of your top selections. Better yet, prearrange a delivery or pick-up time with a few places for certain days of the week. That way, you’ll never find yourself so hungry that you scarf down a few slices of the stuffed-crust pizza your officemates just ordered.

Pack It Up
Because restaurant foods are usually higher in calories and fat, contain less fiber and come in larger portions that encourage overeating, your best bet is to bring your own food to work. Plan and pack meals the night before. Make sure that you also bring along a few snacks to ward off hunger throughout the day. The hungrier you are, the more likely it is you’ll lose control and make an “unhealthy” choice. Good lunch foods that are easy to prepare and travel well include sandwiches made with lean deli slices, peanut butter or tuna on 100 percent whole wheat bread. Soups, non-fat yogurt, cheese and cut up vegetables are also great snack options. And don’t forget plastic cutlery to keep you from wandering into the deli next door!

There are a variety of ways to keep packed foods fresh. Public health expert Katz recommends an insulated bag. In fact, Aladdin’s new “Lunchkeeper” series includes a pack with multiple compartments that keep meals hot for up to four hours.

Chill Out
For $40 to $100, you can purchase a mini refrigerator to chill healthy foods, snacks and drinks so you’re always prepared when hunger strikes. Katz suggests filling it with nutritious foods. Fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grain cereals and/or breads or non-fat dairy products help “keep the adversities of the nutritional climate at bay.” Store the fridge under your desk, right at your feet. Be careful not to overstock, because that could lead to overindulging.

Breathe Easy
Keeping your breath fresh can also help keep hunger at bay. This may not be great for everyone (and frankly, it doesn’t work for me), but I know people who dissolve a Listerine strip in their mouths or brush their teeth to help overcome cravings and create a “just finished eating” feeling. It’s worth a try! See if this helps you cut down on your desire to indulge on high-fat sweets. Invest in a spare toothbrush, paste and holder to keep in your desk.

Set Rules
Many offices are breeding ground for nibbling on foods just because they’re available — from donuts and cookies to pizza and homemade lasagna. But a nibble here and there can easily add up to a more than a meal. To combat temptation and empower yourself, set some ground rules. If you give in just this once, and just that once, and just this once again, before you know it, you’ll always be giving in. Instead, set strict limits. “Tell yourself, ‘I will never eat foods others bring into the office,'” Katz says. “Or, ‘I will only eat foods others bring into the office on these days/occasions.'” Remember, an extra bagel and cream cheese on “bagel Fridays” can add on an additional half-pound per month!

If you are going to indulge, do NOT eat directly from the bag, pan, or serving plate. That only makes it harder to keep track of how much you’re eating.

In addition, nutritionist O’Shea cautions against participating in office lunches. “They aren’t always the healthiest foods, even if it’s salad! Instead, bring your own lunch. That way, you’ll have much more control over what you eat.”

Vending Machines
Be wary of vending machines. They are designed to sell — and what sells most? Lots of calories, fat and carbs. So, if you have to choose something, Katz recommends nutrient-rich choices, such as nuts or seeds, even though these options may be high in calories. In the end, you’ll be much more satisfied and less likely to keep reaching for more.

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