How can I stop grazing on junk food all day at work?

A busy job where your energy levels are low and you’re stressed out can have you snacking on high calorie foods to try and boost your energy through the day. Here are some pointers about what you can do to change this pattern….

How can I eat more healthily during the week?

Dear Helen,

Can you help me work out how to move from my current eating pattern to regular nutritious meals? I do really enjoy healthy food but am too tired to cook in the evenings when I get in.  I’m extremely busy at work and do more than my job description partly because I want to do a good job, and partly because I have rather low self-esteem and feel I can’t say no to anything at work.My energy seems very low all the time and I have very low motivation and willpower.  I find it hard to eat before 11am and then end up snacking on unhealthy foods at my desk. I live for the evenings when I open a bottle of red wine and comfort myself with crisps and chocolate.

My eating pattern at weekends is much better. I have the energy to prepare lovely healthy foods and eat regular meals, including breakfast, when I’ll have avocado on rye, poached eggs, spinach and tomatoes.


Some simple changes, taken one at a time, can help here

Dear Pat

The fact that you cook and eat nutritious foods regularly at weekends but not during the week suggests that your problem lies in your exhaustion and state of depletion during the week.  It seems that you’ve got into a pattern of several unhelpful eating habits all reinforcing each other on weekdays: you snack on unhealthy foods at your desk during the day, and look forward to comforting yourself with chocolate, crisps and red wine in the evenings, and then find that next morning you don’t want to eat before 11 am.

In order to move towards eating healthier food during the working week,

  1. The key to all of this is dealing with your severely depleted energy levels during the day, because these will be reducing your willpower and leave you reaching for energy boosts in the form of unhealthy snacks. This means looking after yourself, which is likely to mean learning to limit what you take on at work.
  2. You probably need more structure to your day, including particular times to eat meals. Also, planning lunches and dinners and making preparing them as easy as possible will help you to maximize the pleasure you get from the food you eat.
  3. Make your red wine, crisps and chocolate an occasion, not a guilty secret


Let’s look at what this would mean for Pat

First, and possibly hardest, is to realise that your state of very low energy is linked with being overly busy and being unable to set limits for what you agree to do at work.  Each of us is like a solar system where the only place we can possibly be is at the centre, where the people in our lives are like planets circling around us.  Those most important to us are in the closest orbit, then other friends and family, then acquaintances, and strangers are in the outer reaches of that universe.

I see people in my clinical practice all the time who put other people before themselves, believing that it would be selfish to think of themselves. Some people go so far as to put the needs of complete strangers above their own in an attempt to be as selfless as possible.  But there is a high cost to doing this. The people I work with who do this usually come for help utterly exhausted, depleted, often on anti-depressants and feeling bad because they are failing to meet the standards they set themselves of helping others. What I point out to them is the solar system analogy, and that the people they need to focus on helping most are those closest to them, and that in order to be able to do this, it is essential for them to look after themselves properly.  None of us can support someone else when we are ill.  Which is where the over-exhaustion eventually leads.

I think this may be what you’re doing Pat.  If you value your job and your employer, they will be in a fairly close orbit to you, so you will be more use to them if you start looking after yourself better. Your performance at work will improve, not decrease.  In short, you need to look at how long you are sitting at your desk without a break, your workload, the length of your working day and how long your breaks from work are.  If this feels wrong, remember that it’s what’s needed to help the people who rely on you.

Also, you may not realise that willpower is like a reserve of energy that is replenished by sleep, so we have more of it in the mornings. It is used up by making decisions, and by resisting impulses, so it is quickly sapped in a demanding day.  Glucose tops it up again, which may be partly why we turn to food.

Second, as humans we have a stomach and gut which allows us to eat meals (most people have 3 a day but there’s no rule on this) with gaps of a few hours inbetween.  You’ve fallen out of the pattern of weekday meals, and it will help to re-introduce them, as part of seriously looking after yourself.  As a first step, carve out a lunch break which can be fairly short to start with if that is more manageable and move away from your desk to eat some lunch.  Eat mindfully and give your permission to pause and rest to recharge your battery a bit before returning to your desk.  Because you’re so exhausted, it may be wise to start with lunches that are healthy and ready-to-eat from your favourite supermarket, until you feel your energy improving to the point you can cook extra at weekends or make a packed lunch the night before.

Third, move tempting snacks further away from your desk and put a fruit bowl in view near where you work. There is evidence that if unhealthy foods are more than 6 feet from your desk you’re less likely to eat them. It particularly helps if they are hidden from view.  The fruit bowl is there for if you need a mid-morning or afternoon snack.

Fourth, your evening indulgence of red wine, crisps and chocolate is obviously a cherished part of your day.  So make it a more pleasurable event.  Choose your very favourite chocolate or crisps, put the portion size you want to be able to stick to in a lovely bowl, pour your red wine into a small glass (easier to drink less this way) and make a special comfy place to enjoy them.  If you make yourself a rule that you’ll really focus on enjoying the snack and wine without watching TV at the same time (maybe listen to music instead), you’ll get more pleasure from it.  Then you could watch TV or read when you finish the lovely treat.  Work out what time in the evening is best for this comforting treat and then adjust your evening meal to allow you to get definitely hungry by chocolate+wine time, so you really taste the deliciousness.

Finally, your evening meal will be to have something that is digested by chocolate+wine time.  My advice would be to try having a single vegetable that you love, with a favourite sauce.  A ready-made sauce is fine, particularly while you are too tired to cook from scratch.  So all you have to do is steam the vegetable and warm the sauce.  As your energy levels improve this may change.

Vegetables are digested fairly quickly and mean that you feel hungry again sooner, which is what you want if you’re going to really taste that evening special snack.  It will also allow you to feel hungry at breakfast time, when again the food will taste fabulous. And as an avocado-and-rye lover, you’ve got a quick, delicious and nutritious breakfast which will reduce your desire to snack at work.

This will all take some trial and error and you’ll need to see what pattern works for you.


If you have a question for Dr Helen McCarthy about eating and weight loss, email

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We cannot answer queries personally. Advice given is of a general nature and does not constitute specific psychological or medical advice.




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