Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re truly hungry while on the job, then by all means, eat.
But if you’re frustrated by the habit of noshing at work even when you aren’t hungry (or if you’re eating past the point at which you feel full), then keep reading. You’re not alone and there are plenty of strategies you can implement to help break the habit of overeating at work.
Overeating on the job can take two forms: eating when you aren’t hungry or eating more than you’re actually hungry for when you eat. Whatever form it takes, overeating generally comes from one, or a combination, of several factors: stress, burnout, or proximity (in other words, we’re more likely to reach for a handful of chocolates if they’re sitting within arm’s reach).
When it comes to stress, prolonged stress can increase both appetite and the motivation to eat. Additionally, stress makes us more likely to consume foods high in fat and/or sugar—which can spark appetites even more. Much like stress, feeling burnt out at work can prompt us to overeat and to feel less in control of our food choices overall.
No matter the nature or cause of one’s inclination to overeat at work, the good news is that there are plenty of strategies that can empower you to make healthier choices and cut down on overeating for good.
Nix Noshing At WorkExperiment with any or all of the following strategies to figure out which best serve your goals of maintaining a healthy relationship with food—including while you’re on the job.
- Eat breakfast
Yes, you’ve heard this before but it’s true: Eating a well-balanced breakfast (one that contains carbs, fat, and protein) can help you feel less hungry—and therefore less prone to snack. It’s also been linked to consuming fewer daily calories overall.
- Check in with your stomach
It’s simple, but also very practical: Before eating anything, pause for a moment and ask yourself, “Am I physically hungry right now?” If not, try to turn your attention to another task. If you’re not sure, set a timer for 10 to 20 minutes and get back to work (or take a break from work entirely). Then re-assess whether you’re hungry after those minutes are up.
- Eat well
When you do eat, try to choose foods that fill you up and provide lasting energy. Aim to consume protein and fiber at every meal and opt for foods that have a high water content, such as fruits and vegetables. Doing so will help you feel full faster and keep you energized longer. It’s a win-win.
- Identify food-free pleasures
Many of us seek the comfort of food when we’re bored, stressed, anxious, or upset. Or perhaps our snack breaks are the only bright spot in an otherwise dull workday. The need for comfort and pleasure during the day is valid and understandable, but these feelings don’t have to come from food. In addition to eating well, try to identify food-free activities that add a bright spot to your day, such as taking a short walk, meditating at your desk, calling a friend for a few minutes, listening to a favorite song, reading a magazine, and so on. Even a 15-minute break can do wonders for your state of mind.
- Savor the visual
Research suggests that failing to look at our food as we eat it can prompt us to eat more than we otherwise would. Try to practice mindfulness by savoring every aspect of your meal—the way it looks, smells, and (of course) tastes. Slowing down and paying attention to the full experience of eating can help you be more aware of when your satiety cues start to kick in.
- Ditch screens
It’s a lot easier to pay attention to your meal when you’re not distracted by social media updates or new emails rolling in. Give your mind (and eyes) a break and increase your mindfulness as you eat by avoiding screens whenever you take a meal or snack break. Better yet? Get out of the office entirely.
- Pack healthy snacks
Eating healthfully is easier when you have access to healthy food. As much as you’re able, bring healthy snacks to work with you every day—or stash them in the company kitchen—so you have a healthier option when coworkers pass out baked goods or candy.
- Be strategic about accessibility
Want to stop eating handfuls of pretzels every afternoon? You’ll have a much better shot at sticking to this resolution if the pretzels aren’t sitting on your desk. Try to keep your healthy snacks easily accessible and less healthy food options out of sight (where research suggests they’re more likely to stay out of mind).
- Stay hydrated
Being dehydrated can mess with hunger and satiety cues. Drinking plenty of water, on the other hand, can help you feel alert, focused, and capable of distinguishing real hunger from the impulse to overeat.
- Have a healthy snack before meetings
Work gatherings often fail to provide healthy food options, but all hope isn’t lost. If you’re worried about maintaining your willpower while sitting in front of a platter of donuts for two hours, try eating a healthy snack right before the meeting. That way you can help stave off hunger and feel like you have more agency in choosing what (if anything) you eat during the meeting. If you’re not sure what kinds of food will be on hand during a meeting, check with the meeting’s organizer in advance—that way you can decide whether you want to eat the food on offer or consume your own snack before heading to the conference room.
- Keep a food log
Some people may not want to track everything they put into their mouths—and that’s fine—but others may find keeping a food diary is immensely helpful. If you want to give it a try, the premise is simple: Write down everything you eat as well as how you feel when you eat it. Use a pen and paper or try a food log app. After a few weeks, you’ll start to observe patterns that can help you identify your triggers for overeating.
- Strategize ahead of time
Once you understand more about your motivations for overeating, the next step is to come up with a game plan to replace that habit with healthier behaviors. Let’s say you realize that impending work deadlines make you reach for the cookie jar. Try writing down an alternative commitment. For example: “If a work deadline is looming, I will make sure to take a quick stretch break every 30 minutes, eat a healthy lunch away from my desk, and meditate every morning before I open up my email.” Having a plan in place can help you choose healthier behaviors even when old stressors rear their heads.
Armed with these strategies, you’ll be empowered to change a habit of overeating at work. As you strive to find a balance that works for you, remember to be gentle with yourself. If you have a big slice of cake at a coworker’s birthday celebration, it’s no big deal. Aim to make healthy eating decisions overall and don’t worry about the rest. After all, you’ve got work to do.