The Boston Globe

Downsizing, stress leave little time for nutritious meals

By Chelsea Lowe, Globe Correspondent, 2/6/05

Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki
Chef Scott Leeds (right) readies a dish for an employee at Pfizer Global Research & Development in Cambridge. The employee cafeteria is open for breakfast and lunch, and on-site chefs cook to order.

Depending on your point of view, Sally Murphy is either a nutritionist's nightmare - or a typical overstressed modern American worker. The partner and director of client services at Rattle Advertising in Somerville says she starts her day with a sizeable cup of coffee and sweet pastry. By afternoon, as her energy flags, she moves on to snacks and beverages filled with sugar, salt, and caffeine.

In the morning, "Before I do anything, I have to turn on that coffee maker" Murphy says. "On my way to the office, I'll stop at Dunkin' Donuts. I'll get some more coffee and a chocolate-frosted donut."

Although she drinks half-caf (50 percent decaffeinated coffee), she concedes she has become overly dependent on caffeine and other unhealthful treats to get her through her working day.

"I think it's a way of battling fatigue," she says. "When I'm really fatigued, I get into that kind of a pattern."

Murphy is not alone; in fact, her behavior has become too familiar among stressed workers who lack the time, and in some cases, basic knowledge, to make healthful food choices.

Nutritionists and workplace consultants say downsizing has exacerbated the problem, leaving workers little time to plan healthful meals or go in search of nutritious fare.

"People do not seem to cook anymore. They're depending on take-out food much more," says Lilian Cheung, the director of health promotion and communication in the department of nutrition at Harvard University's School of Public Health. "People are spending so much time at their work sites."

"In the last four or five years, [there's been] a lot of change in the workplace, [between] downsizing and our economy," says Pamela Hamp, marketing developer for office furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In 1996, and again in January, the firm commissioned a study examining many aspects of workplace life, including time spent (or not spent) eating lunch. Steelcase's findings in its first survey nine years ago came to be called "the disappearing lunch hour."

"One of the first questions we asked was, 'on average, how many minutes do you take each day for lunch?'." Hamp says. "Overall, 55 percent take half an hour or less." In '96, she says, it was an average of 36 minutes a day. (Also, the current study found, women, on average, take shorter lunch hours than men. Sixty-one percent of female respondents reported taking 30 minutes or less, while 48 percent of men said the same.)

Nancy Clark, a sports nutritionist in private practice at Healthworks Fitness Center in Brookline and the author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, says, "What I see is that people tend to eat in a crescendo. They're too busy to have much breakfast, they work through lunch or barely stop to eat lunch and then they devour this huge meal at the end of the day. In reality," Clark says, "it should be a timeline. People get hungry every four hours."

Clark encourages clients to eat two small lunches a day and suggests "a Sucrets [sized] box full of almonds" as a simple and nutritious desk drawer snack. She says nuts or peanut butter can be eaten five times a week, as they provide "good fat," (that is, monounsaturated), are filling, and don't spoil.

"When you have peanut butter and graham crackers and a decaf latte in the afternoon, you're fed. You can go home and deal with the kids or work out," Clark says. (The latte, she explains, contains calcium).

And, Clark advises, after a long day at work, "Never go into a restaurant hungry." Those who do, she says, can fall prey to such fatty temptations as "bleu cheese dressing, fettuccini Alfredo, garlic bread, cheese cake. When you're hungry, you don't care ..... Cinnabon, Coffee Coolatta, Big Macs [are] just there for people who've gotten too hungry. By preventing hunger, you're able to see other options that are readily available, as well."

Few, if any, formal studies have reported on nutrition in the workplace, but some companies have hired consultants and made vast changes, promoting healthful lifestyles and nutritious eating at work.

Helen Darling, the president of the National Business Group on Health in Washington, D.C., says her company works with corporations to "encourage employees to make certain they are supporting healthy lifestyle choices." Some companies, she says, adopt "a corporatewide policy on what foods and beverages will be allowed to be served in the workplace," others may change meeting-food options from pastries and soft drinks to small, cut bagel slices and fresh fruit, while others subsidize the employee cafeteria's more healthful entrees.

Darling says even office vending machines can carry more healthful choices.

At Pfizer Global Research & Development in Cambridge, the employee cafeteria is open for breakfast and lunch, and on-site chefs cook to order, according to Adam Thomas, the company's associate director of human resources.

"Every lunch, you have the option of chicken breast, salmon or swordfish, grilled steak ..... perhaps, over salad or with vegetables on the side. Salad's available every day, [as are] fresh fruits or fruit-based desserts." It offers, he says, a "rather substantial meal, rather than just a donut.

"We regularly provide fruit bowls for meetings; you don't just get the cookie plate," although cookies generally are offered, as well, Thomas says.

Darling says companies can, and should, be encouraged to make healthful eating a priority among employees. "You don't want to make it easy for [workers] to avoid healthy choices," she says. Too often, she says, for meetings, "they'll wheel in something like these big pretzels or [buttered] popcorn or pastries or really big cookies. How about air-popped corn that doesn't have butter on it? How about smaller pretzels?"

And, she says, "You would put out enough for everybody to have some, but not too much - so you would feel like a pig if you took more than your fair share ..... [Attendees] wouldn't be sitting there thinking, 'Should I go back for seconds or thirds or fourths?'."

Darling says companies can also subsidize healthful habits, paying part of the cost of nutritious cafeteria menu choices, subsidizing weight management groups or gym memberships, for instance.

"We haven't had a specific healthy eating drive," Thomas says. "There's not a daily healthy option highlighted [but rather] consistently healthy options there. If you want to eat healthfully, you can. If you want to have pizza and fries, that's also an option."

"Certainly," Murphy says, "I want the eating habits to improve, but I really think they're symptomatic of fatigue. I actually start to miss vegetables after a while." However, she adds, they "take a lot of time. You have to cut them up. If my work life becomes more manageable, then it's easier for me to focus on health issues, because I have the energy level" to do so.

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