If you’d like to start eating better at work but aren’t quite sure how to make lunch a healthy midday meal, you’re not alone.
New research from the American Heart Association (AHA) and food service provider Aramark shows that more than half of American workers struggle to consume a healthy lunch at the office — a meal that proves to significantly impact whether or not they make healthy decisions over the course of the day.
According to an AHA press release, as part of the association and Aramark’s Healthy for Life®20 By 20 initiative, the groups conducted a survey that looked at 907 American adult employees ages 18 and older who eat lunch during their regular work hours.
They found that 56 percent struggle to prepare a healthy lunch, while 77 percent said they would more likely make healthy decisions over the course of the day if they had that nutritious midday meal.
Beyond this, an exceptionally high 91 percent said they were interested in improving the healthfulness of their lunches — something younger employees under 40 were more likely to be interested in than their older coworkers.
The data hasn’t been published officially but is being analyzed for potential publication in the future.
The need for nutritious work lunches
Dr. Anne Thorndike, vice chair of the AHA’s nutrition committee and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told Healthline that a lot of factors contribute to the unhealthy quality of American workers’ lunch options.
“Not every workplace is the same or has the same offerings,” she explained. “Some people choose to bring lunch from home, where they have more control over what they eat. During the work day, a lot of people are busy, they’re stressed, sometimes we have the tendency to quickly get on with our days and prepare something quickly or grab whatever is immediately available at the cafeteria.”
This scattered approach to meal selections doesn’t always lead to the healthiest choices, Dr. Thorndike stressed.
Fast food can be the easy go-to option for many. It’s there, it’s quick — but oftentimes it’s far from healthy.
Many people might just pick up that doughnut, muffin, or slice of pizza readily near their desk out of convenience, she said.
“People may be making food choices under stress, so I think one thing that could help would be to just be aware of that ahead of time. Planning ahead of time is important. If you can’t bring your own food to work, planning when you’re going to eat [or] where you’re getting it is important. It’s built into your day then,” Thorndike added.
Thorndike, who separately published research on the connection between what people buy for their work lunches and cardiometabolic risk, said unhealthy food choices you make at lunch can build up over time.
“If you’re buying a lunch at work five days a week that isn’t a healthy choice, that’s a lot of meals every week. It can contribute to obesity and obesity-related risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, [and] hyperlipidemia,” she said.
Essentially, don’t underestimate how much something as simple as choosing between a salad or burger in the lunch room can have a multi-faceted impact on your overall health.
How to make a healthy lunch
What are ways to actually make your lunches more nutritious?
Alyssa Pike, RD, manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, told Healthline that it’s important to break down what it means for a meal to be “healthy.”
“People often have a very narrow view of what’s considered healthy — they think salads and veggies are the only ‘healthy’ options — which leaves them disappointed when their real-life choices don’t fit in with those expectations,” she said.
She said one key is variety. Incorporating multiple food groups and an array of colorful foods on your plate generally is a good rule of thumb to determine that you’re including a range of nutrients in your meal.
From the survey, 86 percent of participants said they prepare work lunches at home at least some of the time. Women were more likely to do this than men.
If you’re preparing your lunch at home before work, Pike suggested you try to include at least three food groups if possible.
Look to whole grains like whole wheat bread or crackers, protein-rich items like peanut butter or a chicken breast, fruits like avocados and strawberries, dairy options such as yogurt and cheese, as well as vegetables like carrots, cucumbers, or tomatoes.
“Utilize your pantry. There are plenty of healthy, shelf-stable options out there like canned fish, whole grain pasta, nuts, etc. If you have access to a fridge, easily transportable options like hard boiled eggs, sliced fruit, string cheese, and sliced veggies can be stored until it’s time to eat. If you don’t have a fridge, a lunchbox with an ice pack will also work,” she said.
Thorndike added that there’s no “magic” universal formula for preparing a healthy lunch. She echoed Pike in saying that the more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains you eat, the better.
But are work cafeterias and food stations good sources to help you make these healthier dietary decisions?
Thorndike said she thinks some workplaces are improving but “most aren’t quite there yet.”
However, some innovative strides have been made.
For instance, she said that her work cafeteria at Mass General Hospital has instituted “traffic light labeling,” which clearly states in red, green, and amber colors how much of different ingredients are in each food item. This makes for easily identifiable healthy options, perfect for employees on the go, she explained.
“People do better when they make the choice for themselves,” Thorndike said. “Work places need to do a better job of guiding people to what are healthier choices and how they can do it quickly and efficiently.”
The bottom line
The AHA and Aramark announced survey results of American adults in the workplace who regularly take time out of their day for lunch.
Out of 907 respondents, more than half said they struggle to prepare a healthy lunch for themselves, with 77 percent indicating they would continue to make healthy choices throughout the day if they made a more nutritious midday meal.
Experts say making continuous unhealthy lunch choices can lead to greater health risks over time — from obesity to high blood pressure.
Nutritionists say, if you can, make your lunch at home and bring it to work. Try to include items from three food groups, adding a variety of colors and nutrients to your plate, from whole grains to vegetables and fruits.