Why eating at your desk is a bad idea

NICOLE HADDOW
Last updated 10:55 26/03/2013
lunch

DESK JOB: This lunch break take 10 minutes, step away from your desk and breathe some fresh air, your stress levels will thank you.

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We technically get half an hour for lunch, but there's never really time,'' said the woman I was replacing in a new job. I didn't think much of her statement then, but it was the first crack in what had always been a fairly healthy relationship with food.

My mum served up nutritious, restaurant-quality meals for all of my childhood and continues to do so today. It wouldn't be unusual to drop by unannounced and be greeted with a plate of prosciutto-wrapped pork with sage and creamy polenta.

Back when we all lived at home, my brothers and I would sit with my parents long after a meal's conclusion, reflect on the goodness we'd ingested and run our fingers rebelliously across our plates, collecting the last globs of tasty sauce.

For a while, mum's passion inspired my own food experimentation and complex dishes that required the use of every kitchen utensil.

That was before desk eating, grubby share-house kitchens and resentment towards the cost of basic ingredients chipped away at my gourmet gorging.

That woman had been right about the lack of time to take a break to digest a meal - not only in that job, but all the jobs that followed. I had to be at work early, so I began pouring cereal into my oversized tea cup and eating breakfast at my desk. For lunch, I'd throw a slab of cheese between two pieces of bread, jam it in the dirty toasted sandwich machine and eat that at my desk, too, slumped over a pile of work, dusting off the crumbs as I read pages of work and ate.

Going to the supermarket after work made my gut churn. I often stood under the bright supermarket signage knowing I was unprepared for battle. I bought exorbitantly priced out-of-season fruit and miscellaneous items that didn't add up to a cohesive meal.

It became easier to reach for a quick fix: a tinned soup or leftover takeaway curry.

After years of lacklustre dining, my stomach began to hurt. The more I ate things from plastic containers on the couch or chewed through my stress at my desk, the more my insides raged.

Sitting at an actual table to eat a meal with friends or family and passing the salt and pepper became as luxurious as sitting in a banana lounge on a tropical island. When I sat at a table, I relaxed properly and the pain disappeared because I was enjoying the company of loved ones while I ate.

Eventually I discovered that I was wheat and dairy intolerant, but sometimes cutting these things out still didn't stop my tummy from throbbing. So what the hell was the problem?

A recent study found that one in three British workers were eating lunch at their desk and many ate breakfast there. While there's no equivalent New Zealand study, I suspect - given the experience I've had in every office I've worked in - figures would be similar.

The dietician and founder of Corporate Nutrition Melbourne in Australia, Kara Landau, says that it's not just what we eat, but the conditions under which we do it that impact our health and well-being. ''People often start to feel overwhelmed and consumed by their work when they do not take a break to regroup,'' she says.

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In addition she points out that staying at your desk means you miss a chance to get out in the sun. ''Low vitamin D levels have been linked with depression and therefore ensuring you keep your levels in the healthy range is an important factor for managing your emotional wellbeing.''

Eating at your desk also increases the chance that you're mindlessly overeating because ''you are not focusing on your hunger and fullness signals, and therefore at risk of consuming a larger volume of food than you need to feel full,'' Landau adds.

Your colleagues might baulk at you getting out to relax while they're chowing down in front of their computer screens but it's vital for good health. ''Make sure you give yourself 30 minutes of 'you time' over the lunch break. It can make a big difference to your health in the long run.''

If your co-workers persist with lunch at ''Cafe Desk'', that's their choice.

These days I work for myself, which means I don't face glares from colleagues when I go out for lunch. It's not always easy to resist the urge to eat at my desk when I'm frantic, but I take 30 minutes to escape daily, even if that means tacking some extra time on to the end of my working day. I'm far more productive in the afternoon after lunch and a flick through a magazine or a brisk walk.

I also make lists before going to the supermarket. I prepare batches of quinoa with smoked salmon, rocket and fresh dill and also ensure I have loads of fresh in-season fruit, salad and vegetables on hand at all times. Turns out, it's not so hard.

And what do you know? My stomach is smiling again.

- Daily Life

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