Are you overweight because of how you eat at work? By Susan Krueger

overweight mindless eating at work

Every story should have a twist. Evidence buried deep in the narrative, only obvious to keenest eyed reader, nails the villain on the final page. Except ‘Overweight – Whose Fault is That?’ isn’t an Agatha Christie novel, there is no body in the library or villain caught out by Miss Marple’s encyclopaedic knowledge of rail timetables. In the end a simple food diary solves the mystery of why Emma is struggling to control her weight.

Having never worked in an office I turned to my husband Peter for the description of Emma’s working day. He produced a list of everything he was eating each day back in the days when he found himself on the wrong side of 17 stone. Actually, unlike Emma, his weight would stabilise over the Christmas period and peak during March and April - when most people where still only three quarters of the way through their post-Christmas diet plans. Spring saw two big IT shows: one in Birmingham the other in Hannover, Germany. The company’s product launches were timed to take advantage of the publicity generated by these two events. There were breakfast meetings, lunch with customers and dinners with distributors. Then there were gifts from suppliers; most either alcoholic or edible. There was aisle after aisle of stands with bowls of snacks and confectionery. Amazing that grown men were rewarded with a sweet for picking up a brochure. Even when travelling there was no escape from the endless supply of food. The coffee and roll at the airport, the complimentary meal on the flight; in those days even on short haul routes. In the car there was an ashtray full of M&Ms and rest stops at motorway service stations invariable ended up as brunch.

He could have said ‘no’ of course and sat with an empty plate in front of him. But this would have set himself apart from his peers and implied weakness; something businessmen are loathed to do. Stomach muscles stretched as comfort eating and constant hunger saw overeating begat overeating. Waking up with coffee and pastries in the morning; unwinding late in the evening with beer and peanuts in the bar.

The suggestion that a week at a health retreat would be a good way to round off the Spring campaign fell on deaf ears. Peter ran at weekends – to clear his head – but not far enough to have a significant to impact on his waistline. In fact, jogging while overweight merely threatened to substitute one health issue for another. He was doing as much damage to his knees on a Sunday morning as he was his liver during the rest of the week.    

In the end it wasn’t some miracle diet that saw Peter lose weight. A prolonged bout of vertigo both detoxed his body and prevented him eating solids for two weeks. ‘A whole wardrobe of clothes that don’t fit. How clever is that.’ He complained when back on his feet. He had been diagnosed with Meniere's disease; fortunately, only in one ear. The frequency of vertigo attacks was reduced by cutting his intake of salt – so here was an opportunity to rebuild my husband’s diet from the ground upwards.

Food manufacturers add the troika of ingredients: salt, sugar and fat, to their products in carefully measure amounts to maximise the pleasure we derive from eating them.  With salt gone that balance is destroyed; now added sugar made food taste too sweet and added fat made it taste slightly sickly. Basically Peter had working taste buds again after years of sauerkraut, rollmops and salted peanuts. With the weight gone running became easier. His birthday present that year was a Garmin Forerunner. Boys with toys was the order of the day here and he could download running logs to his PC and analyse them with the aim of improving running times. During the run motivation was provided by a cartoon like virtual running companion which chased his avatar across the Garmin’s screen – which Peter claimed was slightly spooky. His two targets were 30 minutes for a 5.5 Kilometre cross country run and 2 hours for a 16 Kilometre run around the nearby National Trust estate. He met both of these and eventually managed 27 minutes for the short run and 1 hour 50 minutes for the longer run. Obviously one of the main determinants of performance was weight and the fastest times were achieved when Peter weighed less than 11 stone. While an all-weather runner he also got himself a basic Kettler cross trainer – something of a relief as it gave his knees and feet a rest from time to time.

Psychologically people are more responsive to something being taken away from them as they are to receiving it in the first place. In other words, loss is a more powerful motivator than gain. On his computer screen he could see the correlation between his weight and his running times. The drive to keep his weight down was strong. However, Peter was still working in the same environment that saw his weight steadily increase in the first place. And this environment has not improved with time. Rewarding people with confectionary, once merely a gimmick at exhibitions, is now standard practice for stationary suppliers. Even mundane office meetings provide an excuse to gorge on Danish pastries. Returning to the environment which was responsible for you becoming overweight without a changed attitude to food and physical activity is one of the reasons diet plans fail.

In the book Emma’s train ride home in the dark at the end of her working day is used a metaphor for her inability to escape from the environment has caused her to put on weight. For some people their journey is not a metaphor but the reality. Long distant coach and lorry drivers are reliant on the poor quality of food in service stations. They sit in the same position for hours on end and endure the stress of driving busy motorways. However even for Emma there seems no escape. In part because the clues to her problem are buried deep in the narrative of her busy working day.

When I sit down with a client to discuss their weight problem the starting point isn’t the dos and don’ts of their diet. I begin by unpicking their lifestyle and looking for clues. The culprit often isn’t just food but the client’s relationship with it. And the answer isn’t merely cutting down and making sure only ‘healthy options’ find their way into the weekly shop. The only way to effect change is to help the client refocus. Assist them rebuild their lifestyle with different priorities and well defined targets. Also demonstrating that the YourFoodForLife programme can put them in control of their lifestyle and eating habits and help them make the long term changes necessary to achieve a healthy weight. Not really a mystery after all.

About The Author

Susan Krueger is a Cambridge based nutritionist and weight loss practitioner and the author of ‘Overweight – So Whose Fault is That?’.

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