Yesterday, the Vancouver Sun ran an interesting article in it’s weekly Health feature; Deadlines make for bad diets.
They reported the results of a paper published in the journal Physiology and Behavior (I have a soft spot for this journal; it’s where I published my very first scientific paper about yo-yo dieting and weight gain in mice, way back in 1990).
Researchers asked the question “does performing knowledge-based work (e.g. sitting at a desk analyzing data, writing computer code, drafting papers, reports or blog posts) lead to weight gain?”.
Of course we all know that prolonged sitting and lack of physical activity contribute to weight gain. Move less, burn fewer calories, gain weight. But what’s new about this study is the observation that knowledge-based work is often time sensitive and that the stress caused by meeting a deadline may result in overeating upon completion of the task.
The researchers took two groups of women (group sizes were small, only 15 women per group, so results need to interpreted cautiously). One group was asked to read an excerpt of text and was then given 45 minutes to write a response. The second (control) group was asked to sit quietly for the same period of time. At the end of the test period, both groups were offered access to an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Guess what they found.
The group of women who performed the writing task ate an average of 230 calories more than the group who sat thinking quietly! In addition, food logs kept by the participants indicated that the ‘work’ group did not compensate for these excess calories by eating less through the rest of the day.
The authors also measured circulating cortisol levels (cortisol is known as the ‘stress hormone’ and has been implicated as a food craving trigger). No surprise, the ‘work’ group had higher cortisol levels than the control group. But interestingly enough, they didn’t report feeling any more stressed than their ‘resting’ counterparts and were unaware of their overeating.
In a followup study (using similar protocols), the ‘work’ group not only ate more at lunch when compared with controls, but also experienced greater fluctuations in blood sugar levels while performing the task. The authors argue that our brains may seek extra food to help stabilize blood sugars after doing ‘work’ just like our muscles need to refuel after a weight training session.
What does it all mean?
Sitting at a desk and performing mental work under a deadline may contribute to weight gain by elevating stress levels and making you more prone to mindless eating.
So what’s a desk worker (or blogger) to do? Well, I believe that knowledge is power. Just knowing that you’re more likely to overeat upon the completion of a stressful task allows you to plan.
- Plan healthy snacks and meals when you’re working on a deadline
- Eat in the kitchen (mindfully), not at your desk (mindlessly)
- Cut back on the caffeine. It may fuel creativity, but at the expense of elevated cortisol
- Keep a water bottle handy; staying hydrated will suppress your appetite and keep your mouth busy
- Take mini-exercise breaks during your work day; physical activity reduces stress (as do yoga and knitting)
What are you waiting for? Drop and give me 10! (Pushups, crunches, squats or rows; take your pick!)
Do you find yourself eating more when you’re under stress?
Are particular foods more appealing to you during stressful times?
Please hit me up in the comments section below!