Making Healthier Food Choices at Lunch
Planning and mindfulness can help combat convenience and pleasure seeking.
Posted Nov 07, 2014
Making healthy food choices on a regular basis can be hard. Most of us are busy with work, family, or other important endeavors, so when it comes time to eat we often make quick decisions in the moment. Unfortunately, quick decisions are often based on either convenience, taste, or both. Sometimes I find that I’ve worked through my normal lunch time, but I still feel like I have a ton of work to do. I need something now, and something tasty wouldn’t hurt because I’m stressed! Sadly, as I know all too well, there just so happens to be a BBQ place within shouting distance that is all too happy to help me with this dilemma. A recent study tried to address this common problem in two ways.
The study took place at a hospital and recruited workers who ate at the cafeteria on a regular basis. They were given access to a preordering system online so they could make their lunch choice at any time in the morning (they were required to do it at least 45 minutes in advance of lunch to minimize the kind of quick decision making I just described). They were also given brief mindfulness training. Mindfulness is the act of focusing your attention on the present moment both internally (how you feel, what you are thinking) and externally (what is going on in the world around you). It is a wonderful way to slow down your decision making process and allow you to orient to important factors to consider, such as your long-term health. Workers who were given access to this intervention ate about 150 calories and 9 grams of fat less per meal over the course of two months. That equates to roughly a pound of weight lost per month (or a pound of weight not gained).
It is impossible to say which piece of the intervention was most important, as they were not evaluated separately. But both ideas already have strong support in the research literature and so it seems safe to assume you can use some of these strategies to help your own decision making.
If your workplace has a cafeteria, you can follow this strategy almost as designed. You may not have access to an online ordering system, but you can keep a menu on hand and give yourself prompts to choose your lunch before lunch time (try setting a daily alarm or reminder in your calendar). Then simply go to the cafeteria and buy what you decided earlier. Your choice earlier in the day is much more likely to be healthier than a choice in the moment.
I don’t have a cafeteria at work, so here’s my plan: prepare at least 4 lunches per week at home and bring them to work. Yes, it will take a little forethought and effort, as well as a bit of time. But the benefits- losing a couple of pounds, more energy, less of that sluggish feeling after overeating- more than pay for themselves.
Regardless of what you do in terms of meal planning, everyone can benefit from practicing mindfulness before eating. Even 30-60 seconds could be helpful. Just close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, label how you are feeling (e.g. hungry, stressed, fine, happy), notice any cravings you might have, think about your health and why it is important to you, and then proceed with making a food choice. A little pause can go a long way.
Dr. Jason Lillis is author of The Diet Trap: Feed Your Psychological Needs and End the Weight Loss Struggle available on Amazon and where all books are sold.