Talent   //   March 4, 2024

Nutrition experts advise how to plan a healthier work day

When you’re working for eight hours a day in one given spot, a lot of intentionality is required to ensure that you get up from your desk, go for walks, and move around. And when you return to your desk, hopefully it’s an ergonomic setup that doesn’t leave you with body aches, neck pain and stiffness by the end of the week. 

But one thing is still often overlooked: are you drinking enough water and eating the right food?

For some, that means having a huge gallon water bottle on your desk that’s marked off with certain goals to hit by certain times of the day, and for others it’s setting a reminder every hour on your phone to drink some water. 

According to Instantprint, a U.K.-based online printer, only half of respondents in a 1,000-person survey shared that they drink two glasses of water or less at work. When the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime, these small efforts matter to overall well-being and health. 

We spoke with expert nutritionists to hear more about their tips for staying healthy throughout the workday, from drinking enough water to choosing the right food.

“For a lot of people, it’s a planning issue,” said physician nutrition specialist Melina B. Jampolis. “If you fail to plan, you can plan to fail. I use that expression a lot. It’s thinking ahead of time on what you need and also having a plan B. If a meeting comes up, if a call runs late, or if they’re rushing out of the door because they overslept, they don’t have a plan B.”

1. Aim to drink eight glasses of water a day, with four or more during work

On average, it is recommended that males should be drinking roughly 10 cups of water per day. For females, it is slightly less; eight cups of water.

“Between 50% to 80% of the human body is made up of water and so it’s incredibly important to help maintain everyday healthy functioning,” said Olivia Bell Macdonald, head coach and owner of OBM Nutrition Coaching. “There are lots of benefits to staying hydrated, some of the main ones include helping you to maintain your body temperature, aiding the production of saliva which has knock-on benefits including improved digestion and regular healthy bowel movements. Water also plays a role in lubricating your joints, transporting oxygen around the body, excreting waste products and making hormones and neurotransmitters.” 

Jampolis says that if you’re not good at remembering to drink water, put a timer on your phone for every hour or two. If you drink enough water in the day, it’ll also require you to get up and interrupt how much time you’re sitting for. 

“If you’re getting up to go to the bathroom every two hours, you’re at least breaking up that sitting,” said Jampolis. 

2. Avoid drinking caffeine after lunch

According to Instantprint’s survey, over 44% of Brits shared that they prefer a caffeine boost over water and indulge in over three cups of tea or coffee a day. 

Bell Macdonald says that adults should consume no more than 400mg of caffeine per day, which is the equivalent to about two espressos, four instant coffees or eight cups of tea. While caffeine has its benefits, including enhancing focus and productivity, when consumed in excess and at the wrong time of day, its side effects far outweigh the benefits. 

“You don’t want to overdo it on caffeine, and what is in your coffee or energy drink could be an even bigger issue,” said Jampolis. 

“You don’t want to overdo it on caffeine, and what is in your coffee or energy drink could be an even bigger issue.”
Melina B. Jampolis, physician nutrition specialist.

Where possible, avoid consuming caffeine until at least two hours after waking. This allows you to take advantage of the body’s natural cortisol surge in the morning and maximize your response to the caffeine once the cortisol has tapered off. In addition, caffeine is known to delay sleep initiation and sleep intensity so it would be wise to avoid consuming caffeine after lunch for this reason. 

“When your energy dips, you don’t want to just chase it with caffeine and carbs,” said Jampolis. 

3. Stand up and walk around the office for five minutes every hour

Short bouts of exercise will produce not only positive physical benefits but mental health benefits too, including improved mood, energy levels, productivity and focus. 

“Regular work breaks throughout the day are important for so many reasons related to both physical and mental health,” said Bell Macdonald. “It is thought that employers who encourage flexibility and autonomy in how their employees structure their work breaks will elicit the best outcomes in terms of employee satisfaction and happiness, which in turn, has strong links to productivity.”

Employees who work a typical desk job should try and get in some exercise and fresh air where possible. This can be achieved in a number of ways, from using a portion of your lunch break to get out and get some fresh air to standing up and walking around the office for five minutes every hour. 

Jampolis suggests “exercise snacks” which is spending a few minutes every hour or so to get up and move around. “Any opportunity to sit less is really, really important,” she said. 

“Your nutrition could be perfect, but if you’re hyper-sedentary, you’re not getting up from your desk for eight hours, you’re metabolically going to be not optimized,” said Jampolis. 

When you can go for a 15-minute walk, you should. Or, try to stand during whatever calls you’re able to. 

4. Have breakfast, eat a filling lunch or nutritious snacks

Bell Macdonald says that one of the easiest ways to have a positive impact on your mood and productivity levels for the day ahead is to have breakfast. 

“Studies suggest that those who have breakfast perform better throughout the day with higher levels of concentration and cognitive utilization,” said Bell Macdonald. “In contrast, those that skip breakfast are more likely to suffer with low mood and energy, as well as impaired memory and concentration.”

Eating breakfast also helps mitigate the common “3 p.m. slump.” But as the day goes on, there are other ways to think about nutrition as well. While we all love the occasional free snacks from our employer, it’s better when it’s not packed with unhealthy additives. 

“Studies suggest that those who have breakfast perform better throughout the day with higher levels of concentration and cognitive utilization.”
Olivia Bell Macdonald, head coach and owner of OBM Nutrition Coaching.

“Sometimes when people get busy, they forget, and then they get to their work meeting and there are donuts in the breakroom, and someone brought in bagels, and it’s easy to just be like ‘oh my god, I’m starving, so I’m just going to have what’s there,’” said Jampolis. “It’s really important to make sure you’re getting that protein in the morning that will set you up for better brain function for the entire day.”

Snacking is not inherently good or bad, and might be the better option for someone who has a jam-packed schedule and can’t find time for a 30-minute lunch break. However, what matters is choosing the right kind of snack. Instead of something high in sugar, Jampolis says that it’s best to choose options that are either high in protein or have healthy fats. That means not just eating fruit or carbs alone, but having it combined with foods like nuts and seeds or protein bars and apples.

“If you like premade salads, stock up on a couple of those so it’s grab and go, or if you like to cook dinner, make enough for leftovers for the next day, or if you like to go out every day, identify the restaurants that are convenient and fulfilling to you,” said Jampolis. “There is no one size fits all.” 

5. Try to get seven+ hours of sleep

Two thirds (60%) of survey respondents reported having between sixe and seven hours of sleep with 18% reporting that they get six hours or less.

Adequate sleep, both time and intensity, is vital to optimal functioning and research shows that even just one night of poor sleep has the potential to lead to negative physical and mental health outcomes. 

In the short term, some examples of negative effects of inadequate sleep include impaired cognitive function, including difficulties with memory and concentration and inability to perform complex tasks.