Easy, Healthy Workplace Snacks

12 portable goodies that will keep you away from the vending machine

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on May 13, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

There's never enough time in the workday, is there? And one of the ways many of us try to save a little time is by eating snacks (and even our lunches) at our desks. Come on, you know you do it!

Some of us feel that we can't even spare the few minutes it takes to walk to the cafeteria or down the street and buy a snack. When we do take time to eat, some of us can be seen sneaking bites in between checking email, shuffling papers, and answering the phone.

Aside from the fact that it's good for mind, body, and soul to work breaks into the workday, this desktop dining habit is a potential health disaster, according to nutrition experts. Here's why:

  • When people snack at their desks, they tend to eat fast and furiously. And if you eat fast, you're more likely to eat more than you need.
  • When you eat while trying to work, it's likely to be "mindless eating." Your body is going through the motions, but your brain isn't fully aware you're eating. Again, this can lead to taking in more calories than your body really needs.
  • Studies have shown that when we snack because of stress or boredom (not out of hunger), the calories we consume tend to be "extra" calories. In other words, we don't compensate by eating less at the next meal or by waiting longer until the next meal. For example, a recent French study found that when lean young men were fed either a high-protein or high-carbohydrate snack 215 minutes after lunch, they ate about the same number of calories at dinner as they did on days when they didn't have an afternoon snack.

So how do you overcome these pitfalls? One answer is to put aside your work for those few minutes you're eating and take time to really enjoy your food (plus, you won't risk getting crumbs all over that important report you're working on). Another is to make sure you choose healthy workplace snacks composed of foods you should fit into your daily diet anyway (things like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and yogurt).

It's also important to seek balance in your snacks -- and to remember that snack calories do count.

Katherine Tallmadge, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, tells her clients to snack up to three times a day but to limit calories to 100-200 calories for each snack.

"I like to recommend snacks that provide a little carbohydrate, protein, and a small amount of fat, if any," she says.

That's not so easy to do if you're at the mercy of your workplace vending machines or snack shops. Most offer mostly high-sugar, high-fat snacks with little nutritional value. And few meet Tallmadge's snack guideline of 200 calories or less. For example, typical offerings include potato chips, with 303 calories and 19.6 fat grams in a 2-ounce bag; and chocolate chip cookies, with 277 calories and 16 fat grams in a 2-ounce package.

Your best snacking strategy is to plan ahead. Keep some healthy options in your desk or office for those times when you don't have time to get lunch, or when you need a little nutritional boost during the day. You can also bring fresh snack food with you every day from home, providing your workplace has a refrigerator.

Here are some examples of snacks that are good to keep handy in your desk:

  • Trail mix and/or dried fruits and nuts
  • Breakfast cereal (choose a higher-fiber, lower-sugar type)
  • Cans of higher-fiber, lower-fat, and lower-sodium soup (don't forget the can opener)
  • Instant oatmeal packets (look for less-sugar options)
  • Tuna salad kit (includes a small can of water-packed tuna, a relish packet, and crackers)
  • Higher-fiber, lower-fat crackers (like reduced-fat Triscuits)
  • Natural-style peanut butter with crackers, bagels, and/or fruit
  • Packets of low-calorie hot chocolate

Here are some simple perishable snacks you can bring for the day:

  • Low-fat yogurt with fruit
  • Low-fat cottage cheese with fruit
  • Reduced-fat cheese with lower-fat, higher-fiber crackers
  • A small portion of leftovers from last night's meal that you warm up in the lunchroom microwave.

It's also important to make your desktop drinks work for you, not against you. That means either choosing beverages with zero calories that quench your thirst or drinks that have some nutritional value but not too much sugar.

Good non-caloric choices include:

  • Mineral water (with flavor essences like lime or orange if you like)
  • Herb or regular tea (cold or hot)
  • Coffee (caffeine-free is best)
  • Diet soda (caffeine-free is best)

Beverages that offer some nutrition, but not a lot of sugar include:

  • Nonfat or low-fat milk
  • Drinks using nonfat or low-fat milk (like light hot chocolate or café latte)
  • 100% fruit juice or drinks made with part juice and part sparkling water
  • 100% fruit nectar or drinks made with part nectar and part sparkling water

Show Sources

SOURCES: ESHA Food Processor II, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, September 2002; November 1999. News release, American Dietetic Association, Jan. 15, 2003. Katherine Tallmadge, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.

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