At home, you do your best to eat virtuously. Then you step into the office -- and all bets are off. It's a fat, sugar, and salt free-for-all: chocolates at the reception desk; doughnuts next to the coffeemaker; vats of gourmet popcorn, sent by the clients; birthday cakes and pizza parties.
Our workplaces are notorious derailers of healthy eating. And the boredom, stress, and plummeting energy levels we all experience from time to time don't help matters, either. We asked experts to explain why we munch so much junk at work, and their advice for resisting temptation and developing healthier habits.
Cracking down on cravings, even if they occur late in the afternoon, starts with a balanced breakfast. Meals high in simple carbs and sugars -- waffles, white toast, and many cereals and breakfast bars -- cause your blood sugar to surge and then crash, requiring another infusion of carbs. If you have something too sweet for breakfast, often you'll be hungry again soon.
To curb the cycle, start the day with a mix of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs, says Jennifer Workman, R.D., author of "Stop Your Cravings!" "If you include an egg, cottage cheese, or some nut butter in your breakfast, you should feel full or at least satiated for the next three hours."
A puny microwave meal sets you up to snack. Highly processed foods won't satiate you, says David Kessler, M.D., author of "The End of Overeating." "Buy real food. It'll make the cues around you less powerful." Bring leftovers, or keep whole-grain bread, turkey, and tomatoes in the office fridge for an easy, healthy lunch.
Let yourself indulge once in a while, too. A study published in the journal Appetite found that a group of female dieters craved chocolate with more intensity than did nondieters. What's more, the study's authors noted that denying such richly flavored, pleasure-giving foods may induce feelings of guilt, anxiety, and depression.
Going bland in an effort to be healthy -- baked chicken and steamed broccoli, hold the salt -- can backfire. "You'll compensate by bingeing on chips or cookies," Workman cautions. The solution: Use spices liberally, and broaden your palate by exploring Japanese, Indian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Play around with peanut satay sauce and ginger-mango chutney, or round out your meal with a spicy cup of chai. Incorporate more sour and bitter foods as well.
Target any lingering sweet and salty hankerings with healthier alternatives, like tamari almonds or dried cranberries. A hunger for salt may signal that your body needs more minerals, and loading up on leafy greens can help replenish them, says Barbara Olendzki, R.D., M.P.H., nutrition program director at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
When you find yourself walking toward the office candy jar, put on the brakes. "Say to yourself, 'That candy is not my friend. I'll feel better for a moment, but then I'm going to eat more and more. It's not going to satisfy me,''' says Kessler. Simple awareness can help you halt the cycle.
Dealing with office snacks can be difficult because you can't control your coworkers. But consider having a friendly word with the people who supply the goodies, Kessler says, and explain how snacks can be so difficult to resist. You could also counter the junk buffet by bringing healthy group snacks, like fruit and nuts.
Colleagues can influence your eating choices more than you may realize: Food psychologist Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of "Mindless Eating," studied diners eating family-style and observed how many calories they ate. "The most powerful influence is the person sitting right next to you," he says. "The more she takes, the more you take."
Interestingly, women were particularly influenced by the quantity the person next to them ate, especially if that diner was another woman. So a decision as seemingly innocuous as where you sit during an office function where food is present might affect your diet.
Even with careful plotting against the allure of ice cream and cupcakes, you might still feel inspired to pull an Augustus Gloop at the Wonka factory. But "if you can ride out a craving, it will usually fade after 20 or 30 minutes," says Olendzki. To make that time pass faster, phone a friend or pick up a crossword puzzle.
Work to untangle the association of food and comfort -- sometimes easier said than done. Many of us grew up eating carbs as a way to placate feelings of unhappiness or unease. "When we got upset over something as children, our caretakers would tell us, 'Have a cookie, have some candy,'" says Rena Greenberg, author of "The Craving Cure." "So we learned to soothe ourselves with food, and the pattern became deeply ingrained."
Although carbs can be effective as quick tension-melters, so can healthier methods -- such as exercise, yoga, deep breathing, and meditation. And keep in mind that "your cravings may be trying to tell you something," she says. Perhaps that chocolate you eat after each and every staff meeting is a sign that you need a change at work. Whatever the underlying message, facing it directly will be healthier in the long run.