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Hungry? Eating right at work boosts energy

Feel free to graze on healthy snacks at desk

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The days in the corporate world are getting longer. It's not uncommon for people to get to work at 7 a.m. and return home after 7 p.m.

Somewhere in that 12-hour day, those folks are eating. And what they're eating has an impact on not only how they feel, but how well they perform their jobs. That makes when and what people snack on very important.

According to a recent study by the International Labor Organization, the average American works nearly 100 hours more a year than compared to 20 years ago.

"We know that what we eat affects health, energy and productivity," said Gigi Acker, a nutritionist. "When energy is low, productivity is low. You expect lunch to take you through to dinner, and dinner is pushed back later and later. If you're too hungry, anything goes and it's hard to make healthy choices."

The work atmosphere doesn't help much, either. Offices are filled with candy jars, snack machines, soda pop and cookies. And hungry people reach for all of the above. The problem is candies and cookies can provide a quick boost, followed by a sugar crash. And that's no help to an employee who's already drowsy.

Acker is one of a new breed of nutritionists. Located near Silicon Valley, she is an on-site consultant for companies like Gap, 3M and Intuit, provided with office space one day a week because employees asked for her services. The employees pay her for consultations.

She has become something of an evangelist for "smart snacking."

Dietician Marty Lamb, the health promotion coordinator at the Fitness Institute at LDS Hospital, admits that she's a "grazer." And it's not a bad thing.

"The more you divide up the calories during the day, the better your body uses them. It's really better to eat six times a day than three. So if you plan ahead of time, you can bring things in with you."

The key to surviving the competitive marketplace, Acker said, is "to plan for a healthy snack that's going to sustain energy. Listen to your hunger. I have one client who came to me because she's at the gym at 5, eating a light breakfast at 5. By 10 a.m., she's starving and will eat whatever is quick and easy."

They started planning for a healthy snack at 10 a.m. Acker said it's important to recognize that craving for food and satisfy it with something that will provide a sustained boost.

Snacking is actually a way to improve overall health, Acker said, as long as it's good nutrition. What's harder is finding foods that satisfy cravings, boost energy and end hunger but that are not the high-fat, high-sugar items that tend to fill most vending machines. She recommends carbohydrates, protein and fiber, a combination that "gives sustained power." And also important is choosing something that tastes good.

"The best healthy foods are the ones that give you the pleasure. If it tastes great, you're going to want to do it every day. You'll get your hands out of the candy jar."

Her suggestions include a bagel with peanut butter, a nutrition bar like the popular Clif or Luna brands, baked chips with mango salsa, fruit shake with a protein boost, hard-boiled eggs, low-fat chocolate milk, low-fat yogurt with granola or fresh fruit with whole-grain cereal.

Nationally, the message seems to be getting across. If you are what you eat, a healthy diet is a better choice.

And she's noticing national trends are changing. More employees are eating fresh fruits and carrot sticks, rather than spending money at the vending machines. Workers bring in a dozen bagels, instead of a dozen donuts. Candy bars are giving way to nutrition bars, potato chips to light microwave popcorn. She said she's also seeing more people drink bottled water.

Still, it takes advanced planning, according to Lamb, since most snack machines are heavy on sweets and chips and not so good at providing fruits.

"They give you an initial boost and quick energy but have no staying power. If you were to make wiser choices, like a bag of mini carrots, you'd get the fiber and fill up with vitamins and minerals, as well as anticancer elements. We're making a big push in Utah for 'five a day' — five servings of fruits and vegetables.

"If you keep it on hand, you're going to eat more healthy and feel more energy. You won't overeat as much."

E-MAIL: lois@desnews.com