Paleo in the Workplace: How Clean Eating Improved My Productivity
Bryan lives in San Francisco, CA, and has been working for technology companies since 2009. He currently leads Product for Tasteful, the startup behind the healthy-food finding app Paleo Digest and has spent time at Strava and Intuit. He is a certified holistic nutrition consultant and has a passion for helping people lead healthy lives. You can follow Bryan on Twitter @btublin.
“Salad for breakfast? Again?”
It had been a busy week.
The startup I worked for was in a crunch to submit one last build before the holiday season, with key deadlines looming. My schedule was tight, and every minute mattered. I was desperate to squeeze more time out of every day, which is why I found myself eating breakfast at the office again instead of in the comfort of my own apartment.
As my colleagues streamed through the office kitchen on the way to their desks, they simply didn’t know what to make of the fact that I was eating meat and veggies at 8:30AM. I received a number of quizzical comments that week, which I’ve since learned is part of the territory when it comes to eating Paleo in an office setting. Most people aren’t used to the concept of eating food that doesn’t come in a box for breakfast, let alone having greens with every meal. This leads to confused, curious, and even jealous reactions when they see someone else bucking convention.
This can be enough to crush the spirits of any aspiring healthy eater.
The fact is, eating Paleo in the workplace can be challenging. Without the proper habits and strategies to keep you going, making the right choices can be hard to sustain.
I’ve been following a more-or-less Paleo framework for the last 2.5 years, while working in the high-stress software startup industry. Like many who have adopted this lifestyle, I’ve since benefited from increased energy, greater productivity, and reduced stress levels.
Along the way I also picked up a few key habits and strategies that helped sustain my early efforts. Although it may take some testing and refinement, any office worker can follow a Paleo lifestyle. They just need a realistic roadmap.
What follows is an account of what worked for me when starting out. I’ve also included some specific examples of what I’ve implemented to sustain healthier habits in the workplace.
When people discover Paleo for the first time, it’s tempting to jump right in and eat nothing but meat and veggies. While this may work for the iron-willed among us, that approach didn’t feel sustainable to me when I first started out.
Instead, try identifying the biggest changes you can make to your current diet, and choose to tackle one improvement at a time.
For me, I took note of how often I typically consumed the biggest exclusions from the Paleo diet – grains, dairy, legumes – and came up with Paleo-friendly alternatives for each. My list ended up looking up something like this:
- Breakfast: Oatmeal
- Lunch: Sandwiches
- Dinner: Pasta and rice
- Breakfast: Extra veggies in my omelette
- Lunch: BIG salads, with a good amount of healthy fats (1/2 avocado, olive oil, walnuts, etc.)
- Dinner: Sweet potato, squash, extra serving of leafy greens
By only making one change at a time, I was able to adjust my daily and weekly routines to fit the new behavior. Over the course of 2-3 months, not only did my body begin responding better to a primarily meat and veggies based diet, but the habits I slowly built provided a sustainable foundation for me to stick to Paleo long-term.
Preparation is Key
I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous Ben Franklin quote:
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
It’s sage advice that shouldn’t be overlooked when trying to make any changes in a high-stress environment.
When it comes to Paleo eating as a working professional, this means thinking about potential situations that will cause you to slip up (i.e., “sticking points”) and putting into place plans to make sure you don’t slip up when those situations occur.
Personally, I tend to snack when I’m stressed or bored. I also know that it’s difficult for me to avoid eating delicious treats when they’re available and I’m a little bit hungry. So when my co-worker brings in a fresh batch of her husband’s homemade brownies, it’s hard for me to say no.
Three things had to happen for me to address these personal sticking points:
- Make sure to eat enough at each meal! When I’m full and satisfied, I’m less likely to want those brownies, no matter how delicious they are. Sounds simple, but it’s surprising how easy it is to under-eat following a Paleo framework.
- Drink plenty of water. Thirst is easy to mistake for hunger, which is exacerbated when I’m stressed or bored. Having a water bottle on-hand reduces the temptation to reach for snacks.
- Have Paleo-approved snacks on hand. If I really have to eat something between meals, some berries with almond butter or a can of sardines works as a great emergency stash. (Here’s a longer list of Paleo snacks.)
Once I knew what had to happen, I began implementing a series of habits to make sure my default decisions were healthy ones. Here are a few behaviors that have stuck for me:
- Sunday is shopping day
- Prep as much meat and veggies in advance as possible (I usually do this on Sunday and Wednesday nights)
- Bring lunch into work from home – this allows me to control ingredients and portion size
- Have Paleo snacks available at the office (sardines and fruit are my go-tos)
Try this out for yourself.
What are your “sticking points” that might cause you to make less than ideal food choices? How can you prepare to address these situations if they do arise?
Dealing with Catered Food, Peer Pressure, and Other Common Workplace Traps
Now that you’ve got a solid foundation, you’re probably ready to dive right in. You’ve slowly tweaked your diet to a comfortable level and have picked up a few key habits to help sustain your success.
You feel prepared, like nothing can stop you!
But hold on a second…
The modern workplace is littered with traps you should learn to avoid in order to maintain your healthy lifestyle. This topic is probably meaty enough for its own blog post, but it’s important enough to mention at a high-level.
Here are three challenging situations I commonly encounter, and how I try to deal with them:
- Catered food and office snacks. As we discussed earlier, the best way to deal with office-supplied food is to prepare in advance. For me this usually means having a few sardine cans handy, which I can throw on top of a catered salad if the Paleo pickings are slim.
- Happy hours and socializing with colleagues. Sometimes you can’t help but find yourself in a situation where drinking is the expected social norm. No one wants to draw attention to themselves as the black sheep in these settings, so it helps to have a strategy to deal with them. When I find myself in these circumstances, I do one of two things: (1) Order a club soda with bitters and lime, my go-to non-alcoholic drink, or (2) Enjoy a glass of wine or two. I’m not against drinking, and a few glasses of wine at a social event doesn’t throw me off my Paleo game entirely. This allows me to indulge a bit when bonding with work colleagues, while not completely abandoning my healthy lifestyle. (Here are some other tips for drinking alcohol on Paleo from Jeremy.)
- Finding time for exercise, stress reduction, and sleep. There are no tricks here – you just have to prioritize this stuff. What helps me is trying to keep a regular bedtime every night (~10PM), building in physical activity as part of my morning routine, and turning off my “work brain” every night by 9:00PM. This forces me to put away my laptop, stop checking emails, and wind down to get ready for bed every night.
It’s important to remember that none of this happened overnight. It was a gradual process that required trial, error, and a few minor setbacks. Along the way I gained a few key habits and strategies that still work for me, and I’m positive you can do the same.
We’re all busy, and healthy eating can be hard to prioritize. If I can figure out how to make it work, I’m confident you can too.
Images: Copyright (c) leungchopan and margoorita from Fotolia