Most people who hold desk jobs know they spend too much time sitting and struggle to find time to eat a healthy lunch. Even trying to take a break to go for a walk can be harder than it seems.
While it may be difficult to find the time in a busy workday to try and eat healthy and stay on top of fitness goals, there are several simple ways you can help fight off belly fat while at work:
1. Avoid free food at work: While it's convenient and economical, consistently eating whatever free food is available in the office break room or running to the vending machine can quickly add up the calories. A 2019 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 23 percent of working Americans eat food from work at least once a week, which led to an increase of 1,292 calories on average per week. The food was typically high in sodium, empty calories, refined grains and low in fruit and whole grains. The most common food consumed was pizza, soft drinks, cookies or brownies, cakes, pies and candy, which are high in solid fat, added sugars and sodium.
The best solution is to bring your own homemade lunch. That way you know exactly what you're eating and what ingredients you used to prepare the meal. You can better control your calorie intake too.
2. Eat lean protein, good fats and fiber at every meal: As well preparing your own lunch, you should keep emergency snacks around so you're not tempted by vending machines. When everyone else is diving into freshly baked cookies that a co-worker brought into work, you can more sensibly snack on raw almonds or other nuts and seeds or nitrate-free jerky to control your cravings. (Read here for other healthy snack ideas.)
Eating all three macronutrients — lean protein, good fats and carbohydrates (read: mostly vegetables) filled with fiber — at every meal, especially for lunch, will keep you full, focused and not tempted by your co-worker’s cookies.
A treadmill desk is a great exercise option for when you're too busy at work to take a walk around the office. (Photo: Pure Geekery/Flickr)
3. Burn more calories while you type: Walking at a clip of one mile an hour may not seem fast enough to prevent belly fat, but walking on a treadmill desk at your work station can add up, over the course of a normal work day, into a two-mile or more stationary saunter. The bottom line why most people put on belly fat is that they consume more calories than they burn. Walking in place while working could help, over the long run, transform the weight-loss equation into a caloric deficit, leading to weight loss. Don’t have room for a treadmill desk? For under $200, you can purchase an adjustable computer stand, which can be raised to a comfortable, standing work station. Walk in place or simply shift your hips from side to side to burn more calories.
4. Do several rounds of 'burst exercise' each day: JJ Virgin, certified nutrition specialist and co-star of The Learning Channel’s (TLC) hit series "Freaky Eaters," tells MNN that burst training at the office, defined as 30 to 60 seconds of all-out high-intensity exercise followed by one to two minutes of lower-intensity recovery, is one of the best ways to fight belly fat on the job. "Try simple short burst exercises like a 60-second round of jumping jacks or running in place," says Virgin.
Allow your heart rate to gradually recover by walking in place for a one-minute cool-down, Virgin recommends.
Parks or hills near the office are great places to perform burst training and get some fresh air, which is vital for mental health. Research suggests that burst training is better than one prolonged bout of exercise per day. According to a study in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, burst training may also enhance exercise adherence. Short bouts of exercise may also result in weight loss and produce similar changes in cardiorespiratory fitness when compared to long bouts of exercise, says the study.
5. Never skip breakfast: A study in Obesity Research concluded, "Eating breakfast is a characteristic common to successful weight loss maintainers and may be a factor in their success." There is some debate whether eating breakfast fires up the metabolism, but chances are solid that no weight-loss professional would ever encourage someone to skip breakfast. Don’t have time to cook yourself an omelet? Start your day with shake. A fast, filling protein smoothie can be made in a couple of minutes. If you’re dairy-free or vegan, opt for pea or rice protein powder with unsweetened coconut or almond milk. Add chia or flax seeds and berries for natural fat, antioxidants and healthy carbohydrates.
6. Drink water throughout the day: Astudy in the journal Obesity concluded that "drinking water may promote weight loss in overweight dieting women," independent of whether they exercised. In addition to helping ward off belly fat, staying hydrated may prevent energy crashes and loss of mental focus. “Bypass the vending machines and the sugar-loaded drinks and opt instead for pure distilled water,” Virgin recommends. "Keep a canteen at your desk and sip throughout the day. Add some lemon or lime if you need a little flavor."
Perhaps one of the most critical pieces of belly-fat fighting advice: Don’t go more than four hours without eating. Some people go six or more hours during the day without eating, in between lunch and dinner. Late-night calorie bingeing may result. So, if you eat lunch at noon, have a snack at 3:30 or 4 p.m. so you don’t have an energy crash before dinner. Same thing applies for the time between breakfast and lunch. If you eat breakfast at 8 a.m., don’t wait until 2 p.m. to have lunch. Have a protein-rich snack at 11:00 a.m.
Also, don’t feast on sugar-loaded snacks, even if the source is natural sugars, such as dried fruit. Opt instead for the real thing, say half a green organic apple with a spoonful of almond or sunflower butter.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in September 2012.