Job-related Weight Gain: Battling the Bulge at Work
It’s a mantra you could repeat in your sleep: eat less, make healthier choices, and get more exercise. But let’s face it, you’re busy, and even though you’ve sworn a thousand times that you’ll lose the ten pounds you’ve gained since you started your job, between the doughnuts at every meeting, the vending machine down the hall, and the long hours at the office, it feels like the deck is stacked against you. Here are some tips to help you regain control of your nutrition and your weight.
In general, the culprits behind weight gain at work are no different than those that trigger weight gain anywhere else. These include:
- Too much stress
- Too much food or the wrong foods
- Too little exercise or physical activity
Too Much Stress
What does stress have to do with weight gain? According to researchers, plenty. Although you may not realize it, your body responds to stress on a physiological level. When you are under stress, your brain signals your adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol, in turn, causes your body to release glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream to provide energy to the muscles. (Remember the old fight or flight instinct? Cortisol makes sure your body has the energy it needs to do one or the other.)
Chronic, extremely high levels of stress lead to high levels of cortisol in the body, which in turn leads to increased appetite and fatty deposits (particularly around the hips, trunk, and stomach). Ordinary job stresses will not cause this much cortisol to be released, but high-intensity power positions or an extremely stressful period at work may cause long-term elevations of cortisol in the bloodstream. Such detrimental physiological effects could result.
To counteract stress, we often crave comfort foods, like carbohydrates. Research about the factors that cause specific food cravings is inconclusive. However, studies suggest that low blood sugar stimulates hunger. Foods high in carbohydrates are a quick energy source, which may explain such cravings.
Other studies suggest that a decrease in the naturally produced chemical serotonin may explain the connection between mood and food, and that people who crave carbohydrates have low serotonin levels. Serotonin regulates many of our feelings, including pain, sleep, mood, and hunger. Eating carbohydrates increases our serotonin levels and makes us feel calmer and less irritable. Unfortunately, this pattern can often lead to emotional eating (eating in response to emotions instead of hunger). In fact, researchers say as much as 75% of all overeating is caused by emotions. Some researchers caution that carbohydrate cravings may simply be a learned response to emotions and may not have a scientific basis.
So, what can you do? Try changing your response to stress. Instead of seeking comfort in food, find a pleasurable activity. If you’re at home, try getting a massage, visiting a friend, reading a book, playing with pets, or playing with your children. If you’re stuck at the office, find a quiet place and sit with your eyes closed, breathing deeply. You’ll be surprised how recharged you’ll feel after just 10 minutes.
Too Much Food or the Wrong Foods
Grabbing fast food for lunch, or skipping it entirely? As you already know, these are dietary no-no’s when it comes to your weight loss plan. But a busy lifestyle doesn’t have to mean an unhealthy diet. Here are some tips to help:
- Eat breakfast! Some studies show that adults who consume most of their daily calories in the morning lose weight, while if they consume the same amount of calories at night they gain weight. The enzymes that help the body digest food are most active in the morning and early afternoon. Your metabolism will start burning calories after you eat breakfast!
- Buy fresh produce and carry it with you so you always have a healthy snack on hand.
- Reduce butter use. Try substituting butter with extra virgin olive oil instead. A serving of extra virgin olive oil contains much less saturated fat (only two grams) than a serving of butter (eight grams), and extra virgin olive oil has no cholesterol, while butter has 33 milligrams of cholesterol per serving.
- Use nonfat or low-fat dairy products.
- Salad dressings are notoriously high in fat and calories. Try using just one tablespoon of dressing on your salad.
- When you buy meat, choose the leanest cuts. Trim any visible fat before cooking.
- Reduce your intake of fried foods. Try a baked potato, squash, or yam instead of fries. Or bake your chicken without the skin on.
- Reduce the portion size of your dessert, or better yet, try replacing it with fresh fruit.
- When eating in a fast food restaurant or cafeteria, try ordering a lean roast beef or grilled chicken sandwich, and no super-sizing! Also, order items without cheese, and omit or go light on the mayonnaise.
Space your meals evenly throughout the day, approximately every 3-4 hours. Try switching that afternoon candy bar to one of the following:
- Microwave low-fat popcorn
- Whole wheat crackers with peanut butter
- Fresh fruit, plain or with reduced-fat cheese
- Nonfat or low-fat yogurt
- Carrot and pepper strips with a low-fat dressing or bean spread
- Mixed nuts and dried fruit
- A fresh fruit yogurt smoothie
Too Little Exercise or Physical Activity
You already know exercise is good for you, but between the demands at work and home, there’s simply no time, right? Wrong. Here are a few ways to work exercise into your workday:
- Park a little farther away from the office than you actually need to. Use the same trick when keeping appointments or running errands. A little extra walking every day can make a big difference.
- If you’re tied to your desk because of your phone, get a headset or use your cell phone. This will allow you to walk around as you talk. But be courteous. Make sure you don’t disrupt your coworkers’ activities.
- Have meetings on the run. Discuss business during an afternoon or noontime walk, run, or jog.
- Hand-deliver a message or document instead of using email or the phone. These few steps can help you accumulate more physical activity by the end of the day.
- If you have a sedentary job, take a break every hour to get up, move around, or stretch.
- If your office has or is near a gym, use it! Make it easy by keeping workout clothes and an extra towel at the office.
- Take “brain breaks.” Need a minute to think something through? Trying to compose a letter or an email? Take a short walk around the block or up one or two flights of stairs. Exercise helps improve blood flow to your brain, which can help you think.
- Tell your boss and your coworkers what you’re doing. Don’t just disappear to go for a run or walk while at work. They will likely support your physical activity breaks when they see your improved energy level and productivity. Some of your coworkers might even join you!
American Dietetic Association
American Heart Association
Canada's Food Guide
Heart Healthy Kit: Public Health Agency of Canada
Carbohydrates’ calming effect. American Dietetic Association website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/Public/NutritiionInformation/index_2687.cfm . Accessed November 4, 2003.
Healthy eating tips. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/heal_eat.htm . Accessed November 4, 2003.
Laferriere R. Nutrition matters: beating emotional eating. Tufts Daily website. Available at: http://nutrition.tufts.edu/news/matters/2003-05-19.html . Accessed November 5, 2003.
Lallukka T, Laaksonen M, Martikainen P, Sarlio-Lahteenkorva S, Lahelma E. Psychosocial working conditions and weight gain among employees. Int J Obes. 2005;29:909-15.
Study reveals worksite nutrition interventions more successful than ones for smoking cessation. United States Office of Personnel Management website. Available at: http://www.opm.gov/ehs/SepOct99/SepOct9910.htm . Accessed November 5, 2003.
Trying to slim down? Eat breakfast. American Dietetic Association website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/Public/NutritionInformation/index_13340.cfm . Accessed November 4, 2003.
Workplace environment can improve eating habits. Center for the Advancement of Health website. Available at: http://www.hbns.org/newsrelease/workplace7-20-99.cfm . Accessed November 5, 2003.
Last reviewed February 2009 by ]]>Shehla Arain, MD]]>
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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