This is part of Canadian Health and Wellness, a series in which Corus radio stations nationwide dig into health issues facing Canadians with the help of some of today’s most respected diet and exercise practitioners. Read the rest of the series here.
When it comes to leading a healthy lifestyle, most health professionals will tell you that it starts with what you put into your body.
But what do we need to eat to fuel our bodies when we’re working different jobs? Basically, it depends on how much of your day you spend sedentary.
“It comes down to the energy requirements and what the physical demands are,” says registered dietitian Katrina DuBois.
“If you are being more physically active, you are going to need more food just because you’re moving a lot more than somebody who’s sitting all day, and your needs for protein and carbohydrates are going to be a little bit higher than somebody who’s not moving as much.”
The sedentary worker
“The biggest challenge that office workers face is the fact that food is all around us now, and there’s a tendency to almost overdo it while you’re eating at work,” says Heidi Bates, director of integrated dietetic internship at the University of Alberta.
“Popping down to Starbucks for that coffee and a muffin — which doesn’t seem like much — if you don’t make the right choice and have a very simple coffee and a very small muffin, your morning snack could actually be the calorie equivalent of a full fast-food meal.”
LISTEN BELOW: Canadian Health and Wellness — Diet and productivity
DuBois agrees and says people who are sitting for long periods of time — say, an office worker or a long-haul truck driver — need to imagine a dinner plate and split that plate into quarters when planning their meals.
“It’s really important to keep in mind that we need half of our plate coming from vegetables,” she said. “So we’re really loading our plate with that fibre, really lots of high-end vitamins and minerals, so that we’re fuelling our body with that, and it’s going to help keep us full for longer periods of time. And the other quarter of our plate, it’s going to be coming from protein, and then the last quarter, grains and starches.”
Both experts agree that eating something healthy and small every two to three hours is the best way to keep the more sedentary worker focused and productive through the day.
“That way, you’re keeping the amount of sugar in your blood, which is fuelling your brain, kind of constant across the whole day,” Bates says.
The active worker
For someone who needs to fuel their body to be more active throughout the day, dietary choices shouldn’t change too much from what a more sedentary worker would eat, but DuBois recommends imagining that same dinner plate and splitting it into thirds instead.
“A third is coming from the protein, a third coming from grains and a third would be coming from vegetables,” she says.
One of the bigger challenges of eating healthy for someone like a construction worker may come from the fact that a fridge and a microwave aren’t readily available. In that case, chef Lisa Lindquist recommends reaching for a thermos and bringing along chili or soup with a lot of protein and easy-to-store snacks.
“Something like beef jerky or some grapes or something for an afternoon snack will help you avoid being depleted,” Lindquist says.
For an athlete, the caloric intake to fuel their body through training, practice and games may be even higher than the average active worker, but an athlete’s diet also tends to take more prepping and planning.
“They’re going to be requiring a lot more food to keep their energy levels up and to keep their productivity levels high because that’s going to relate directly to how their productivity is being affected,” DuBois said.
But there still isn’t one formula for all when it comes to an athlete’s diet. It can vary widely from sport to sport and even from position to position in a given sport.
“Linemen are big, powerful guys, and their diet can have more fat in it because they need to be bigger in general,” Edmonton Eskimos wide receiver Natey Adjei said. “They need to keep their weight on because part of their job is keeping grown men away from our quarterback. So they need to have as a good mix of fat and muscle on their body. So, you know, with their diet, it’d be typically a lot different, more calories.”
However, Adjei, who needs to stay nimble and light on his feet as he attempts to score a touchdown, focuses on lean proteins and very balanced diets.
“You’re getting all your food groups: you’re getting your protein, you’re getting your carbs, you’re getting your grains in every meal and also your vegetables,” he said. “So everything is included, and it needs to be lean.”
For Edmonton Oilers forward Sam Gagner, his diet changes depending on his schedule.
“For myself, I always find that if I can get as many carbs as I can post-game, I tend to respond a lot better,” he said. “During the day, I’ll limit carbs a little bit more. And then around my training, you add some more into it.
“Not only are you spending a lot of energy playing the game, but there’s the stress factor of thinking about it all day and that kind of stuff. You got to try to get as many nutrients as you can post-game to make sure you recover for the next day.”
Regardless of the type of work you do, Bates, DuBois and Lindquist all agree that it’s important to find what works for you to fuel your body but also allow you to enjoy life.
“It’s what you do most of the time that counts,” Bates says. “At every office, you’re going to have those events where somebody shows up with something. But it’s when it starts to be an everyday feature of things — things can really add up.”
Lindquist says planning your meals ahead can help you to stay on track.
“Meal planning makes a big difference because you want to set yourself up for success, so whenever you can plan ahead and kind of visualize what those events are going to look like for you, then you can make really good choices ahead of time and still allow yourself to enjoy it, too, and enjoy some treats,” Lindquist says.
Meanwhile, Adjei says he takes a break from his balanced diet every now and then.
“It’s kind of like, you know, pride at the end of the week,” Adjei says of so-called cheat meals. “Like you went through a hard week of practice, you got through the game, and now it’s time to try to relax and treat yourself before you get back into the grind.”