Being hungry in the office is a terrible thing. With a rumbling tum and temptation all around in the shape of vending machines and easy-to-reach snacks and nearby cafes, it’s easy to start piling on the pounds.
As someone that loves cooking and eating – starting the former when I was about ten, the latter about ten years before that – I find it very really difficult to resist something tasty. Or not so tasty. Or cold. Or even a tiny bit mouldy (as long as I cut that bit off).
Resisting food temptation in the office is really tough. Whether you’re dealing with simple hunger, or reaching out for a snack because of stress, we’ve got to keep things in check for our wallets and waistlines.
The first step is to change your attitude to food a little. Even if you’re not on a diet, it’s very useful to understand the calories in what we eat, and put those calories in context, not just in terms of health but enjoyment.
Think of it as your ‘taste budget’.
I’m not suggesting you actually go on a diet. That’s a decision to take personally, to research carefully and perhaps even to chat to your doctor about. But you need to pretend you’re going on a diet, if only for a day or two.
Download a diet and fitness app to your phone (I have My Fitness Pal) and use this NHS healthy weight calculator to have a look at what your daily calorie intake should be. That’s the total amount of calories that’s right for your height and weight.
Next, use the app to keep a log of everything you eat and drink while you’re at work. Every trip to the snack machine, or fizzy drink at your desk, each time you have a cup of tea and everything you eat for lunch.
Be prepared to surprised. Really surprised.
For me, it was mayonnaise. That glorious substance that had adorned so many of my lunchtime sandwiches and salads; a reason to lick spoons and knives.
The brand I used at home had more than 700 calories per 100 grams. I realised that even a little dollop used to eat into my taste budget. Then I started looking at crisps – again, really high in calories even for supposedly ‘light’ products. From crisps I looked at biscuits and so on.
I soon started to understand how what I ate affected my taste budget. I could get away with a cup of tea and one chocolate digestive, but three of them? It was an easy nibble, but I’d rather spend those calories on something else. Could I put them towards a (justified) dollop of mayo in my lunchtime sandwich, or add some lovely fatty bacon into home-cooked pasta that evening?
As a side effect of this experiment, I started to appreciate those snacks more. I wasn’t munching absent-mindedly. I would take my time. A biscuit became something to submerge sensuously in my tea (being careful that it doesn’t disintegrate mid-dunk). Suddenly, you start to think really carefully about how much you value taste. That’s how you change your eating habits.
And that’s really important when it comes to crisps and their cousins.
Have you heard of ‘vanishing caloric density’? I found out about it a few months ago. Cheesy corn snacks are a great example. From what I understand, it’s when you eat something that melts quickly, so your brain doesn’t recognise it as having any calories. You end up packing it away thoughtlessly.
Crisps and processed foods have been designed to ping all the parts of our brain to do with pleasure. They are products that are tested and refined, tested and refined, until they seem perfect to us. And who wouldn’t want to eat perfection, even if it’s got a little too much salt, sugar or fat?
When I was reading up on vanishing caloric density, I found a blog by a behavioural scientist who explains some of the methods snack and fast-food producers use to make their dishes appealing.
Keeping those in mind, I’ve some ideas on how to use these tactics yourself and still enjoy eating sensibly. Perhaps you could bring your ‘perfect’ snacks to the office, making them healthier and cheaper than shop-bought ones.
Crunch it and chew it
We respond to contrasting sensations – dishes that are crispy but are also soft and creamy (think deep-fried Mars bars). So make sure your food has a range of textures and tastes. If you’ve made a salad with soft cheese for lunch, throw in some peanuts for extra crunch and saltiness.
Make it mouthwatering
We enjoy things that make us salivate, because saliva helps the food spread across our taste buds. A hint of sauce, a dressing on your salad, some butter added to your re-heated pasta or, yes, a drizzle of mayonnaise to your sandwich will liven up a calorie-controlled meal or snack.
Make it dense
The brain likes it when we can bite into something substantial – the opposite of corn snacks. Choose ingredients with a bit of solidity – carrot sticks, apples in a salad, or a tortilla with some chunky chicken, so you actually notice that you’re eating. (You could also try biltong – think of it as savoury chewing gum.)
Have some favourites
Part of what makes snack and junk food appealing, is that we’ve enjoyed them before. Play on that pleasurable memory by including favourite ingredients in your meals, so you trigger those good feelings of anticipation before eating.
Mix it up good
We respond instinctively to a mix of flavours in our meals. Who could eat plain mashed potato indefinitely? Use herbs and spices, relishes and pickles so that you’ve always got a different taste tantalizing your tongue.
So work out your taste budget – the calories you can afford to eat in a working day. Armed with this you’ll be able to fend off temptation, transform even the extremely ‘healthy’ lunch eaten in the office, and enjoy those occasional vending machine treats even more.
Check out our January #DontBeStationary Competition! Lots of great prizes to be won!