You don’t need us to tell you that those free office donuts and weekly birthday celebrations are bad news for your diet (seriously, how can there be so many birthdays?!). But those aren’t the only work hazards stalling your weight-loss progress: There’s no shortage of seemingly innocent on-the-job habits that can make you take in more calories than you need. And we’re betting at least a few of these sound uncomfortably familiar.
Sure, being the first one at your desk might give you a jumpstart on your task list (and a smug feeling as you watch late coworkers scamper in). But starting the day without any fuel sets you up for a mid-morning energy crash, says nutritionist Rania Batayneh, MPH, author of The One One One Diet. As a result, you’ll end up scrounging for calories wherever you can find them—like those break-room pastries that always seem to appear on your weaker willpower days.
It’s worth waking up a few minutes earlier to give yourself enough time to eat a healthy breakfast at home, Batayneh says. Any combination of protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats is a good call. Think scrambled eggs with veggies and whole grain toast, or oatmeal with 2% milk, a tablespoon of nuts, and some fruit. No time to sit at home and manga? Pack a portable option, such as a low-sugar granola bar (like these ones), paired with two hard-boiled eggs and a ¾ cup of berries.
A mini chocolate here and a piece of candy there might not seem like a big deal. But these treats add up—especially when you’re reaching for them every day. Case in point: Three fun-size Snickers bars contain 240 calories, which is nearly the same as a full-size Snickers. Indulge every workday, and you’ll take in an extra 1,200 calories per week, says culinary nutritionist Robin Plotkin, RDN. In two short months, you’ll have consumed enough calories to gain a pound of body fat. (And hey, calorie restriction can help you in more ways than one.)
In a perfect world, you’d bypass the candy dish altogether. But if going cold turkey isn’t realistic, try invoking a little mindfulness. “Ask yourself why you’re doing it. Are you hungry? Is it for the social interaction? Just a habit?” Plotkin says. Once you figure out what’s really going on, you can find other ways to feed the need—like meeting your coworker in the break room for a quick chat over coffee.
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It’s no secret that pizza and burgers aren’t the healthiest lunch choices. But even if you’re eating a clean lunch like a salad with grilled chicken, digging in “al desko” can set you up for trouble. Staring at your computer screen while you eat means you won’t be paying attention to how much food you’re actually scarfing down, Batayneh cautions.
Hard as it may sound, do your best to step away from your desk. Head outside if it’s nice, or grab a colleague and eat together. And for those times when you really, truly can’t get away, try the half-now, half-later strategy, Batayneh says. Halve your lunch to keep the portion in check, and then save the rest for a mid-afternoon snack when you have time for a screen-free break.
You wouldn’t be human if a last-minute project doesn’t occasionally send you straight to the cookie jar. Plotkin says this happens because stress causes the body to release the hormone cortisol. In turn, blood sugar levels spike and crash, triggering cravings for sugary, high-carb foods.
But stressful situations are unavoidable at work, and eating to tame the tension is a recipe for weight-gain. Not to mention, it rarely works.
So what’s a frazzled worker to do? Remember that stress-related cravings are emotional—not a sign that you’re actually hungry. Instead of a cookie, what you really need is a tool to help yourself calm down, Plotkin says. Pause to take a stretch break or a few deep breaths, watch a funny video on your phone, or send a quick text to a friend. Work from home? Playing with your pet or even watering your plants will do the trick too, she says. (Also worth trying: this 5-minute technique that lowers your stress by 55%.)
Sure, you might not think that you’ll need a midday nibble—or think you’ll save on calories by cutting out that afternoon snack. But when your stomach starts rumbling and you don’t have a healthy snack handy, you know you’re heading straight for vending machine chips, Batayneh says. Or worse, to the coffee shop around the corner for that double-fudge brownie.
Do yourself a favor and stock your desk with clean snacks that will stay fresh for days or weeks. Whole grain crackers, individual nut butter packets (one to try: NuttZo Smooth Organic Power Fuel, 10-pack, $11, amazon.com,) homemade trail mix, or fruit like apples or oranges are all smart options.
There’s a catch, of course, to keeping those snacks around. Yes, it means you’re less likely to race to that dreaded vending machine at the first sign of hunger, but it can also make it way too easy to eat mindlessly throughout the day—and load up on extra calories your body doesn’t need.
Your fix: Set up a snacking schedule. Limit yourself to two snacks a day, and pre-measure your portions, says Batayneh. (This handy portion control guide can help.) That could mean having a midmorning snack at, say, 10:30, and an afternoon one at 3:30. Or, having one snack in the afternoon and another one around 5 PM, if you know you’ll be having a late dinner.
This might impress your boss, but it certainly ups the chances that your tired self will scarf down the first junky thing you see when you finally make it home.
Stashing a healthy snack in your purse for the commute home, or prepping your dinners at the beginning of the week, are two ways to counter that I’m-home-late-and-starving-must-eat-NOW binge.