It’s 2:45 on a rainy afternoon. You’re barricaded in your office hammering away on a high priority project that’s due tomorrow. Your energy levels are plummeting fast and your eyelids are becoming as heavy as anvils. You need something to get you through the rest of this day, and you need it now. Miraculously, you remember the doughnuts and stale coffee left over in the breakroom from that retirement party you skipped.
“You’re a genius,” you remind yourself as you mindlessly drift down the hallway, dragged by forces beyond your control. A mid-afternoon cocktail of sugar and caffeine is exactly the solution you are searching for. But this solution to your problem is only temporary.
In the long run, indulgence in foods that highjack your brain’s reward systems and spike your blood sugar is harmful to your health and will leave you more depleted and less energized.
Even if you are consciously aware of this, it can be difficult to make healthy choices when work is taking priority over all else. If you fall into a habit of dependence on substances like sugar, carbs, and caffeine, it can be difficult to pull yourself out of it and get back on the road to eating healthy.
So how do you replace these less-than-productive habits? Well, you may have heard it said that nature abhors a vaccuum. To put it simply: removing a bad habit without replacing it with a healthier habit will set you up for failure.
Studies have shown increased success of smokers who quit when replacing the act of smoking with a healthier activity, like jogging, rather than just quitting cold turkey.
The key to eating healthier when stressed at work is to replace each of your unhealthy snack habits with healthier alternatives.
Choosing natural, whole foods is always more beneficial than choosing something processed and laden with added sugars.
I will take you through three of the most common office pick-me-ups, and give you healthy whole food alternatives that will fuel your mind, body, and energy over the long term.
1. What you’ve been reaching for: Coffee
Try this instead: Green Tea
I’m not going to demonize coffee. I love coffee. It’s warm, delicious, and provides cognitive stimulation and social bonding. It has been linked to the reduced risk of many chronic illnesses and has recently been removed from the list of possible carcinogens by the World Health Organization.
However, if you are sensitive to caffeine (as I am), it can cause some problems. There are 95 mg of caffeine in a standard cup of coffee. While you may be tempted in the late afternoon to pop a k-cup in the Keurig, you may want to think twice. If your goal is to sit down and focus, excess consumption of caffeine may have the opposite effect. Excess consumption can lead to nervousness, restlessness, heart palpitations, and perhaps worst of all: insomnia.
The National Sleep Foundation lists caffeine consumption as a top cause of insomnia. This creates a vicious cycle in which you cannot sleep, wake up groggy the next morning, and consume more coffee to increase your alertness.
Coffee cannot replace sleep, and in the long run this will make you depleted and unable to perform at optimal capacity.
When you find yourself reaching for another cup of coffee during that late afternoon crunch, try brewing a fresh cup of green tea instead.
Sure, green tea is a caffeinated beverage. The average cup of green tea contains about 35 mg of caffeine, significantly less than coffee. This can reduce some of the jolt, restlessness, and insomnia that ensues from downing too much java.
In addition, green tea contains a very interesting amino acid called l-theanine, which in synergy with caffeine crosses the blood/brain barrier and creates a calming effect in the mind. This is one reason green tea has been used in Eastern meditation practices: it creates a state of alertness yet calmness. This state of mind can better serve us in times of intense pressure, when we are focused on work activities.
Green tea also confers many health benefits. “It’s the healthiest thing I can think of to drink,” says Christopher Ochner, PhD, research scientist in nutrition at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. The beverage is chock full of antioxidants and polyphenols, which help fight disease. Below are some proven health benefits of green tea:
- Prevention of certain types of cancer
- Prevention of heart disease
- Lowered cholesterol
- Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
And while coffee needs the addition of toxic substances (namely sugar and artifical sweeteners) to make it palatable for most people, green tea can be enjoyed as is and delivers a smooth, crisp taste.
Put away that k-cup, brew yourself a bag of green tea, go back into your office and be a zen warrior.
3. What you’ve been reaching for: Doughnuts
Try this instead: Fresh Figs
When you have been staring into the abyss of an Excel spreadsheet for hours, it can be tempting to reach for a glazed dougnut. The carbohydrates and refined sugar will provide a temporary energy boost (in the form of a blood sugar spike). But the ensuing crash will leave you feeling drained and you will probably be tempted to reach for more of the same.
Doughnuts are made with white flour, a simple carbohydrate. In addition, they contain loads of added sugar. This makes them a highly refined, highly processed product. Refined carbs contain close to no fiber, an essential nutrient present in vegetables, fruits, and other whole foods.
Glycemic load is a is a number that estimates how high a food will raise a person’s blood glucose level after eating it. Anything over 20 is considered in the “high” range.
At 24, doughnuts have a high glycemic load. Regular consumption could increase your chances of developing Type 2 diabetes. Doughnuts are also seriously lacking in nutritional value and contain very little vitamins and minerals.
It’s best to avoid these sugar bombs and focus on a whole foods substitute to give you the energy you seek.
Figs are a great alternative to a donut craving because they contain carbohydrates and sugar, but as a whole food, offer much more nutritional value and a lower glycemic load.
Figs have a glycemic load of 16, which is considered medium and much more healthful than the 24 boasted by doughnuts. The sugar in figs is molecularly identical to the sugar in a jelly donut, but because figs contain high levels of fiber, it slows down the body’s digestion of glucose. You won’t get hit by the crazy insulin spike (and subsequent crash) that doughnuts cause. Also, your body will have more time to burn that glucose as fuel before storing it as fat.
Again, as a whole food, figs have a variety of health benefits such as:
- Dense in phenol antioxidants
- Can inhibit the proliferation of various cancers
- High in fiber
- Good source of magnesium, manganese, and calcium, copper, potassium, vitamin K, vitamin B6
- Can help lower blood pressure
Considered exotic in some parts of the world, figs are sweet and juicy when ripened. They can appear red, yellow, or purple-skinned or green-striped. Each has their own unique and distinct flavor.
When buying figs, keep in mind that they are perishable and should be refrigerated if not eaten with a few days.
I find figs to be a delicious and energizing snack. So while you might have to overcome the stigma of being the “weird guy” at the office stacking the break room fridge with figs, you can thank me later.
3. What you’ve been reaching for: Ice Cream
Try this instead: Greek Yogurt with Fresh Fruit
Ice cream can be a comforting food in times of overwhelming stress. However, ice cream can have detrimental effects on our health for the some of the same reasons I outlined in my case against doughnuts: mostly due to its sky-high glycemic load.
The average serving of ice cream has a glycemic load of 31. This is a result of the natural sugars in milk and the refined sugars and ingredients most ice cream manufacterers add to the product.
Since ice cream is made from milk, it does contain nutrients such as protein, calcium, and B vitamins. But by no means am I giving it a pass here. If you want the health benefits conferred by dairy, it’s best to reach for a whole food alternative.
Full fat greek yogurt with a handful of fresh berries can satisfy an intense craving for ice cream, and leave you feeling more full and energized than a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
Full-fat Greek yogurt has a glycemic load of 11. It has more protein, fewer carbs and fewer sugars than traditional yogurt, which will stabilize your blood sugar and keep you feeling satiated. This will maintain your energy levels throughout the afternoon rather than leading to a crash.
Below are some the scientifically studied health benefits of eating full-fat Greek yogurt:
- Decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes
- Weight loss
- Lowered cholesterol
- Reduced risk of heart disease
Be sure to stick with full-fat, plain Greek yogurt and throw in some berries for added flavor. A lot of yogurt manufacterers replace the fat in dairy with added sugar, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid here.
You glance at the clock. 6:00pm. You have buckled down and finished your work with the help of some healthy snacks and the calming energy from green tea.
You head home with satisfaction. Instead of crashing, you now have the energy for other worthy pursuits. Gym anyone?
Take some time to think about the foods you consume at work when you under stress. Are there steps you can take to make sure you’re not making the situation worse? Can you keep whole food snacks on hand to make sure you make it through the toughest days?
Let me know your thoughts below.