Stress and bad eating habits go hand in hand. Even though nutritionists and dietitians tell us over and over not to treat food as a reward, food triggers the same responses in our brain that are associated with success, validation, and comfort.
These feelings come from the “reward center” of the brain, which releases dopamine to tell you that whatever you’re doing, keep doing it! On its most basic level, it is a chemical signal whose sole purpose is to reinforce the behavior you’re currently engaging in.
When we’re stressed, we’re prone to look for any relief from the feeling, and foods that trigger dopamine release are particularly appealing. And for most of us, the most stress we encounter is in the workplace — sometimes on a daily basis.
How do we break that cycle and hold on to a feeling of satisfaction without overeating? Here are ten tips for eating better in the workplace:
Drink more water
Water is incredibly important — it is the lubricant that keeps the machine of your body running. But most of us — up to 75% — are chronically dehydrated, which can lead us to suffer from all kinds of negative health effects, including weakness, headaches, and hunger. Keep a water bottle, thermos, or jug at your desk and fill up throughout the day — water should always be your first line of defense against hunger pangs.
Keep healthy snacks around
Eating well is always easier when you’re not surrounded by temptation. Keep fresh vegetables like celery, bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes around, since you can snack on these as much as you like without taking in too many calories.
In addition, keep good nuts like almonds and walnuts around for protein, vitamins, and antioxidants, which balance out their high fat content with nutritional heft.
Have condiments on hand
But not sugary ketchups, salt-laden soy sauce or high-fat mayo. Keep lighter condiments with more nutritional value around, like hummus or yogurt-dill sauces. Additionally, many popular condiments come in lighter varieties, such as fat-free mayo or low-sodium soy sauce. Ambitious home cooks can also make them at home.
Remember: Vegetable-heavy, sauce-light
It’s alarming to realize that sometimes, the sauce you drizzle over top has more calories than the chicken you’re drizzling it on. Meats and sauces account for the bulk of calories in most dishes. Keep it lighter by padding out your meal with lots of fresh vegetables and keeping the sauce light.
Keep a side plate handy
Next time you’re in a store with a dinnerware section, pick up a side plate to keep at your desk (the kind you would serve salad on at a fancy dinner party). The science of this is still in some dispute, but the idea is that a plate full of food will be more satisfying to you, since it tricks your brain into thinking you’ve eaten a lot. Either way, a smaller plate also forces you to think more about your portion sizes and keep them within a reasonable range.
Drink coffee, but not too much
Most of us won’t need encouragement to drink coffee, already relying on it to get by in our day-to-day. However, coffee is a great appetite suppressant, so if you’re feeling hungry even after a substantial meal, a cup of joe can help you get over the pangs and feel more satisfied.
As much as possible, try to slow down your eating habits. Your brain works on a delayed fuse, so to speak — you often won’t feel satisfied with a meal until about 20 minutes after you’ve had enough to eat. In those 20 minutes, you may have eaten an entire second meal’s worth of food. By slowing it down, you give your body’s fullness-signals a chance to catch up to how much you’ve eaten.
Get a routine and keep it
You’ve read a million lists like this. They all have great advice, but the problem is remembering and keeping those tips in mind as you pack, buy, or eat lunch. It’s easier if you don’t rely on yourself to remember, but rather build good habits into a routine that you reinforce every day. This will help you regulate your appetite, feeling hungry at reliable times every day and feeling satisfied after you know you’ve had enough.
Tweet @AmericaCooks: What are your favorite ways of keeping things light while you work?