Maximize your work day with healthy nutrition

For The Baltimore Sun

A nutritionist from University of Maryland Medical System regularly provides a post to the Picture of Health blog. The latest post is from Caroline Meehan, RDN, LDN.

Are you struggling to make it through the work day? Feeling tired and not at your most productive? It may be time to take a look at your diet.

Meal Pattern

Aim for three meals per day and 1-2 snacks, or a small frequent meal every 2-3 hours to keep blood sugar stable. Skipping meals can result in increased cravings for unhealthy foods and overeating at the next meal.

Rise and Shine

If your morning routine consists of a donut and a sugar-laden coffee beverage, it is time for a change. Sugary foods like pastries and cereals cause blood sugar to spike quickly. The quicker it spikes, the quicker it drops, meaning you’ll be hungry again soon. Morning pastries and white starches are also lacking fiber. Fiber is found in a variety of fruits, vegetable, legumes and whole grains. Fiber breaks down more slowly, keeping you fuller for longer. Start the day with protein and fiber to promote sustained energy throughout the morning. Skip the added sugar in your coffee, and make sure you are drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Breakfast ideas:

  1. Scrambled eggs with spinach and tomato on whole wheat bread
  2. Old fashioned oatmeal with berries and walnuts
  3. Plain Greek yogurt topped with fruit and whole grain granola or crunchy cereal

Afternoon Hump

A good rule of thumb for lunch is to include at least three food groups with your meal. Give yourself about 20 minutes to eat, and be sure to sit down at the table. Take a break from work and the computer screen. Try to also sneak in a walk or some fresh air during this time.

Lunch ideas:

  1. Mixed greens with chicken, nuts, seeds, veggies, cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette
  2. Hummus, vegetable and avocado whole wheat wrap
  3. Tuna fish sandwich on whole wheat bread, topped with mixed greens and tomato

When 3 PM rolls around, you may feel hungry again. Eat! It is okay to have a snack between meals. If you ignore these hunger signals, it can lead to overeating later on in the day. Make sure you plan ahead for snacks. And again, include some fiber.

Snack ideas:

  1. Apple slices and a spoonful of peanut butter
  2. Cheese stick and wheat crackers or grapes
  3. Handful of almonds and dried fruit
  4. Hummus and carrot sticks

Evening

What you do after work can influence energy and productivity the following day. When planning for dinner, balance and including a variety of food groups is key. Be sure to include lots of colorful vegetables and lean protein with your meal. Limit sugar-sweetened beverages at dinner and have a glass of water. Sit at the table and create a pleasant, relaxing environment. You've worked hard all day and deserve this time to relax over good food and conversation.

Dinner ideas:

  1. Lemon garlic baked chicken or fish with broccoli and roasted sweet potatoes
  2. Brown rice and chickpeas with roasted vegetables, avocado and mozzarella
  3. Pasta salad made with whole wheat or vegetable/bean-based pasta, ground turkey and lots of vegetables

If you feel hungry after dinner, having a snack is fine but be sure to practice good portion control. Give yourself 1-2 hours to digest before heading to bed. Pairing a small amount of protein and fiber together can help keep blood sugar stable. Limit your intake of chips, pretzels and sweets as they digest quickly, and can lead to increased hunger sooner. A healthier alternative to chips is a low-salt, low-fat air-popped popcorn.

Lifestyle Tips

While healthy dietary choices are very important, it is also important to take a look at your lifestyle habits.

Sleep: According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Not getting enough sleep may lead to overeating, decreased productivity and increased stress. Limit watching TV before bed as screen time can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Intake of alcohol, caffeine, fatty, greasy and spicy foods before bed can also result in reduced sleep quality.

Activity: Engage in activities that uplift you, and are fun! Whether it's walking or dancing, choose activities that you look forward to. If you work a sedentary job, be sure to move around every 30 minutes or so, even if it is just for a couple of minutes. A large review published in 2015 in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that sitting for a long period of time increases the risk of several chronic diseases and worsening health outcomes, regardless of routine physical activity.

Stress: Stress can increase a hormone called cortisol, which can lead to increased appetite and weight gain around the belly. Find ways to manage your stress, such as with breathing exercises, meditation, fresh air, music or a cup of tea.

Create SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely). Start by creating 1 or 2 SMART goals for yourself. An example of a specific goal may be “I will walk for 10 minutes three times per week during my lunch break”. Write your goals down, take time to plan ahead and reflect along the way.

Remember that while a strong work ethic is important, your health and well-being must remain a top priority in order to do your best, most productive work.

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