Is Your Non-Lunch Break Harming Your Health?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

In today’s fast-paced, get-it-done-yesterday world, the lunch hour is an increasingly endangered commodity. A study earlier this year by OfficeTeam discovered that about half (48 percent) of those surveyed said they spend 30 minutes or less each work day on a lunch break. Around 42 percent use the midday break to socialize with their coworkers, and 29 percent said that they don’t really take a break and continue to work through the period instead.

The U.S. isn’t alone in this dwindling lunch hour trend. Data extrapolated from a 2013 poll conducted by BeyondBlue in Australia estimates that around 3.8 million Aussies are skipping their lunch break, and 72 percent shorten lunch, postpone the break, or eat at their desks instead of taking a real, formal lunch. Also in 2013, the BBC found that 54 percent of Britons were idling away their lunch hour with work; 52 percent believed this to be a common practice in their work environment.

But is this more work, less lunch play beneficial to our health? Probably not when you begin to consider the implications. First, if you’re working your way through lunch and you’re spending more time seated at your desk in front of the computer screen. This means you are tacking time on to what has been called “sitting disease,” which is causing our bodies to break “down from obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, depression and the cascade of health ills and everyday malaise,” according to James Levine, MD, via Longer hours in the chair at your desk increases the risk for developing cardiovascular disease and can shorten a person’s lifespan. When a break is taken during the work day, it gives you the chance to stretch your legs and head outside for a bit of fresh air and vitamin D.

“Staying at your desk is a big no-no in my book,” workplace guru Michael Kerr told Forbes. “There are more and more reports on the dangers of sitting too long, so even just getting up to walk to another room to eat is important, or better still, getting outside for some fresh air and a quick walk can do wonders for the body and spirit.” Kerr added that taking a real break is important, because it will allow you to get more work done in the long run because “productivity and creativity will increase, while your levels of stress and fatigue will diminish” after a real work break.

BeyondBlue CEO Kate Carnell agrees. In a press release for the poll results, Carnell warned against the cycle of sitting and eating involved in a working lunch. “Eating at your desk means you’re not getting the activity you need, you’re not getting up, you’re not getting circulation moving” Carnell explained. “Sitting in one place for prolonged periods of time is really not good for either your physical or your mental health.”

When the BBC investigated the issue, dietitian Alison Clark was interviewed for her views on the rapidly decreasing lunch hour. Like the others, Clark trumpeted the health benefits of leaving the office for a bit of fresh air and also brought up the issue of “mindless eating,” which easily occurs when an actual break is skipped. This lack of focus as to what you’re putting into your mouth can lead to unwanted weight gain.

Susan Moores, RD and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, echoed this sentiment to WebMD. “Eating at your desk encourages mindless eating and overeating,” Moores said. “You’re most likely multitasking and not paying attention to the amount of food you’re eating.” Rick Hall, RD, MS, and a faculty member at Arizona State University in Phoenix, added that the desk was not designed for eating, and that when we do eat at our desks, a whole host of problems are introduced to our lives — like harmful bacteria from keyboards and telephones entering our bodies.

In addition to actually focusing on the food you are eating, taking a real break from work, and moving around, it is recommended that you disinfect the objects you frequently touch to ensure a healthier lunch hour. “Be sure to get your phone, your keyboard, and your mouse as well, and avoid touching those surfaces while you’re eating,” Moores said, per WebMD. “Otherwise, you’re just contaminating your food over and over again.”

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