Eating healthy in the workplace can be challenging. Healthcare workers report numerous barriers to healthy eating, including limited or inconveniently located healthy food offerings, lack of breaks, and the expense of healthy foods.1 Similarly, in a survey among a group of firefighters and paramedics, respondents cited a culture of eating out, cost, and meal interruptions to answer calls as common barriers to healthy eating.2 Shift work3 or round-the-clock, on-call shifts4 may make healthy eating even more difficult.
Bringing meals from home is a simple solution to eating healthier. Homemade meals are convenient, readily available, easily stored if interrupted by a call or short break, and often more affordable than eating out. With a little planning in your grocery shopping, creating healthy meals doesn’t need to be complicated. Packing your meal from home can take less than 3 minutes and is as simple as combining 3 essential elements: calories to fuel your activity and body processes, protein to support growth and maintenance of body tissues and chemicals, and fruits and vegetables to provide essential micronutrients required for proper function and health.
Fat and carbohydrates are the primary sources of calories in your diet. The ratio of fats to carbohydrates will vary depending on your goals and lifestyle. Healthy eating patterns can range from the low-fat Ornish diet5 to the fat-heavy keto diet.6 A more moderate approach is typically suggested, however, with the Institute of Medicine recommending that 45-65% of calories be from carbohydrates and 20-35% from fat.7 A good rule of thumb is to eat about twice as many calories from carbohydrates as you do from fat. Individuals engaged in high-intensity sports or exercise may benefit from a higher ratio of carbohydrate to fat.8
Your caloric need is specific to you and varies from day to day depending on your activity level. There are many ways to estimate daily calorie need. Following your own internal cues is an effective method and leads to healthy eating patterns.9 Eat when you are just starting to feel hungry. Stop when comfortably satisfied. Avoid getting too hungry or overeating. For chronic disease, weight loss, or sport performance where eating according to your hunger or fullness may not be the most effective method, a registered dietitian can be a great resource to help determine an appropriate calorie target to achieve your goals.
Protein is also a source of calories, but its primary function is as a structural component in cells, hormones, enzymes, and other chemicals. High-protein foods include meats, dairy, soy, beans, and nuts. Some protein sources like nuts and some meat and dairy may also contribute calories from fat to your diet. Protein should be evenly distributed throughout all meals during the day. A good target is to aim for 20-40 g of protein at each meal, depending on your daily protein needs. While the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 g/kg body weight for adults (roughly 1/3 your body weight in lbs), recent evidence suggests this amount may be inadequate for older people, those attempting to lose weight, or athletes. The below chart provides recommendations for each group.
|g protein/kg body weight||Formula||Daily g protein for 180 lb person|
|Adults >18 yrs||0.8 10||Weight (lbs) / 2.75||65|
|Adults > 60 yrs||1.2 11||Weight (lbs) / 1.8||100|
|Adults Weightloss||1.2-1.6 12||Weight (lbs) / 1.8-1.4||100-130|
|Athletes||1.4-2.0 13||Weight (lbs) / 1.6-1.1||115-160|
The USDA recommends making half your plate (or lunchbox) fruits and vegetables at every meal.14 It’s estimated that inadequate fruit and vegetable intake is responsible for 5.6-7.8 million premature deaths annually from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.15 The inverse association between fruit and vegetable intake and disease is often attributed to the numerous vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables.16 There is limited and contradictory evidence regarding the health benefits of consuming these nutrients from multi-vitamins17 or fruit and vegetable concentrates such as greens drinks.18 From the data available, supplements may modestly reduce chronic disease risk but are not likely a suitable replacement for adequate fruit and vegetable intake. While most vegetables are low in calories, starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squash as well as fruits may double as a good source of calories from carbohydrates. Additionally, many dressings, sauces, or oils added to fruits and vegetables will contribute calories from fat to your daily intake.
To show you how to put this meal planning system to work, I’ve provided a sample chart of pantry staples to keep stocked and some ways to combine them into a complete meal any time of day. Be creative and don’t be afraid to stray from convention as you create your own version to suit your tastes. I was known in college for eating bell peppers like apples – just wash and eat whole to avoid the work of slicing.
Make a goal to bring food from home every day and within a matter of weeks, you’ll be a pro. You’ll discover new foods at the grocery store and find your own efficient ways to pack your meals. Work with your manager or a worksite wellness contact if you encounter any environmental or cultural barriers. Don’t forget, once you’ve mastered the art of easy meals from home, share your newfound love with friends and coworkers.
Ron Beckstrom is a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, and writer. As a retail dietitian, Ron advises on and writes about the latest food trends and products and has been featured on numerous local news outlets. Ron has worked in various settings as a health professional including hospitals, corporate wellness, and nutritional supplement R&D. Ron is also a member of the Utah National Guard where he serves as an operations officer.