MANHATTAN — Eating lunch at your desk isn't healthy, medical experts say.
It hinders digestion and invites bacteria from the workspace, among other things. But that hasn't stopped more than 60 percent of Americans from chowing down in front of their computer screens.
Without a wholesale changing of lunch culture — which some New York companies are attempting — there are a few steps desk eaters can take to improve their unhealthy habits, nutritionists and doctors said.
"Whether people feel comfortable going out and taking the full hour for lunch depends on the office culture," said Laura Manning, clinical nutrition coordinator of Mount Sinai's department of gastroenterology. "Very often it's frowned upon."
But being sedentary after lunch inhibits good digestion, she said. Because of that, she sees a lot of reflux problems in patients — especially finance industry workers who scarf down burgers while working before the markets shut down.
Manning believes it's a public health issue.
"What’s best for the company is making sure employees are healthy," she said. "When you have a healthy worker, you have a healthy mind and are able to be more productive. It decreases sick days, doctor visits and keeps health premiums down."
Here are some tips for mitigating desk-lunch damage:
1. Walk your building's stairs after lunch.
For workers who don't feel comfortable going out during their lunch break, at least walk around the building, Manning advises.
"Walk a couple of flights of stairs or take a few laps around the office," she said. "For proper digestion to occur you have to walk around after you eat. If you’re sitting, that’s not going to happen."
Walking, she said, aids peristalsis, the muscle contractions that move food down your digestive track.
2. Eat mindfully.
Even if you're at your desk, pay attention to what you're eating, suggested Lisa Young, a nutritionist and adjunct professor at New York University.
"Otherwise it won't even register that you ate," she said.
Keith Roach, an internist and professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, agreed.
"When you're concentrating on food, you're going to get more full and satisfied than when gobbling down mindlessly," he echoed. "Mindfulness is really important at managing what you're eating, so you're not a crazed hunger addict at the end of the day."
3. Take a mental break and socialize.
Lunch is a time to de-stress and it should be a social event, too, Roach suggested.
"We have very good evidence that people who have stronger social interactions do better in a variety of domains including how long you live — they have less stress, heart disease and cancer than loners," he said.
"Even if it's 5 or 10 minutes with the co-worker at the next desk to talk about 'Game of Thrones,' do that," he continued. "Even if there's nobody in your office, take that 5 or 10 minutes and call your sister or mom or best friend. It gets you away from that work mindset."
The break should leave you feeling refreshed, Roach said.
"You may end up feeling better than the guy pushing through it," he added. "Over time, the stress affects you psychologically and physically. People under stress are more likely to get infections, more likely to have sleep problems, which in turn leads to high blood pressure and more long term problems."
4. Don't skip lunch.
Some dieters think that dropping lunch altogether might help them lose weight, but Roach sees the opposite in his office.
"People come in all the time and say, 'I'm gaining 20, 30 pounds … I don't understand, I only eat one meal a day,'" he recounted. "There's pretty good data that you're less likely to gain weight if you have three meals a day."
Even medical residents, who should know better about their health, often skimp on lunch because they have so little time, Roach said.
"The residents I work with are some of the busiest people in the world," he said. "I see them with a candy bar, and I say, 'Please don't tell me that's lunch.'"
For folks like that, Roach advises them to...
5. Pack your own balanced lunch.
Cut out refined sugars, white bread and too much salt, the experts advised. Make sure to include fruits and veggies.
"Your lunch should be well balanced with some sort of protein and carb, a vegetable or fruit or both," Manning said. "When you have those components, your blood sugar stays super steady, even for many hours without requiring a snack. It works like a charm."
An example of a good lunch, she said, includes grilled chicken and quinoa, sautéed greens and a piece of fruit like melon.
"It's easy to digest and you won’t get problems with the 4 o' clock slump that you might get with a high carb lunch like pasta or a sandwich on hero that's not perfectly proportioned — especially coupled with a can of soda and cookie for super-high carbs."
Roach also noted the value of packing your own lunch in a city like New York where few options can be had for under $10.
"You're saving a whole bunch of money," he said, "and you'll have something you'll like and it'll make you feel better."