6 healthy eating struggles of the busy physician—and how to solve them

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published January 10, 2022

Key Takeaways

Enter any public space and you're bound to see a vending machine. According to data compiled by FranchiseOpportunities.com, 55% of vending machines reside in workplaces, including office buildings and hospitals, with 70% of Americans using them daily. There are more than 7 million vending machines in the US, and the average American spends $62 per year on vending-machine purchases.

These convenient sources of mainly junk food can be tempting to the physician on the go—especially when other healthier options are difficult to find. But, they contribute to the struggle of many to maintain a balanced diet.

In an attempt to identify common dietary struggles—and solutions—that physicians commonly face while at work, we contacted registered-dietitian spokespeople representing the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The following is their expert input.

Struggle #1: Hunger between meals

If you’ve ever experienced hunger between meals—and who hasn’t—there are steps you can take to maintain your diet, according to Jen Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN. The key to combating inter-meal munchies starts with a good breakfast.

“Be sure that your morning meal contains protein, healthy fat, and fiber,” she said. “Fiber really can work wonders on satiety. Paired with hydration, fiber can slow digestion and help manage blood sugar ups and downs. You’ll have enough energy to get through a busy morning without the impending crash or sudden hunger of a small or inadequate breakfast. Same goes for lunch—be sure your lunch is balanced, with fiber, protein, and those healthy fats! By eating this way for most meals, you’ll be sustained even if your meal break is pushed back by an urgent need at work.”

Struggle #2: Keeping hydrated

Your hectic day may leave you dehydrated. 

“Create habits that make hydration automatic,” Bruning said. “If you have a desk or station you spend time at, keep a water bottle there. When you walk around the workplace, make a rule that whenever feasible, you’ll stop for a drink when you pass a water fountain. Can you carry water with you as you move around the building? Can you ask management to support a hydration initiative by providing infused water stations around the workspace?”

Bruning also mentioned some specific goals. 

“Try setting an ounce-goal per day. This will help you gauge the amount you need to drink every hour or part of the day. And start your day with good hydration—you’re probably dehydrated from sleeping when you first wake up. Drinking plenty of water in the morning before work can help stave off dehydration later on. Bonus: staying hydrated also helps fiber do its best work, so drink up!”

Struggle #3: Lack of time

Doctors are notoriously short on time (and long on professional responsibilities). With proper planning, however, nutrition can still be within reach.

“If your position is one that demands long or unpredictable hours like healthcare, bringing a few easy-to-eat and shelf-stable snacks in your work bag can make all the difference,” Bruning said. “In those 2-minute intervals between pages or deadlines, you can grab a handful of nuts or trail mix, eat a few bites of a nut-butter sandwich or granola bar, or slam some crunchy chickpea or lentil-based snacks. Be sure to include water or another low-calorie hydrating beverage in your bag as well.”

Struggle #4: Lack of nutritious options

Although the vending machine may offer plenty of options, few are likely to be nutritious. Furthermore, the cafeteria may serve food that is high in fat, salt, and so forth. One option may be to speak with food-service management, according to Bruning.

“Food-service operators want to supply the foods that their clientele is likely to purchase,” she said. “If there are options that you, or better still, a group of employees are likely to purchase regularly, your onsite food-service manager will likely be all ears. You may have more influence than you think in changing the landscape of your workplace café or market, simply by communicating what you’d like to see made available. In addition, there’s the option of bringing meals or snacks to work. If that’s your best option, make time in the evenings to meal prep for the next day. That way you won’t be tempted to skip meals if your morning turns into a rush.”

On a related note, if you must visit the vending machine, opt in for healthy choices. These options can include pretzels, nuts, or cereal. With refrigerated machines, look for fresh fruits, milks, and yogurts.

Struggle #5: Boredom

Many people eat out of boredom, according to Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN. One way to keep healthy is by reining in your personal stash of foods.

“Though eating a variety of foods is a tip for better nutrition, in general, when it comes to less-nutritious snack foods, minimizing the variety helps make snack foods less tempting,” Maples said. “That’s something to consider if your practice does decide to stock the break room.”

“Also, keep your foods out of sight, out of mind in the work area,” she added. “Don’t leave candy in clear containers on your desk. If you do put snacks out in your office, store them in a file cabinet or closet or pantry where they are out of sight and out of arm’s reach.”

Maples cited a Cornell University study that found women eat more than twice as many Hershey Kisses when they are in clear containers on their desks compared with opaque ones.

Struggle #6: Temptation

If there’s a bunch of yummy foods in your presence, it’s natural to feel tempted. But, Maples preaches that restraint is possible.

“When office goodies surface, the best strategy may be to avoid the break room. If you cannot see it, you'll be less likely to eat it,” she said. “Having no plan for food during the day means you aren’t in control of satisfying your hunger or managing actions to meet health goals.”

Maples also suggested that prioritizing indulgences may be a good idea. 

“Decide which snacks that pop up at the office are your favorites,” she said. “Prioritize your favorites and choose one, so you won't feel deprived, but you won't be continually overindulging in excess calories either. Think about which goodies are less special/more ordinary and choose not to choose them.”

On a related note, Maples advised telling pharma reps to bring in healthier food choices for sponsored lunches and snacks.

Bottom line

Although it can be challenging, you can maintain a healthy and balanced diet despite being outside of your house and surrounded by the rigors of practice. Importantly, many of the struggles and solutions mentioned are common among a variety of busy professionals—not just physicians. If your patients also are interested in tips on making it through the work day with their nutritional goals intact, it may be a good idea to share some of this guidance.

Read the latest coverage

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter