No-Break Lunch Breaks

More workers are eating in the office despite warnings from nutritionists that our minds and waistlines need a rest.

July 07, 2004|By K Kaufmann | K Kaufmann,SUN STAFF

Marsha Thomas eats lunch in her cubicle, surrounded by stacks of paper, phone headset on.

For the 32-year-old contracts manager at the Maryland Transit Administration, a typical lunch is salad and fruit from a downtown buffet spot, eaten in odd bites while she maintains a database, catches up on filing, flips through bridal magazines for her September wedding and checks up on her 2-year-old daughter, Maya, at day care.

Paying attention to the food is at the bottom of her to-do list, she admits, but "Sometimes I do have to stop and concentrate ... to make sure [I] don't choke."

Thomas says she's been eating lunch at her desk for 10 years and, according to the American Dietetic Association, she has plenty of company.

For two-thirds of the American workers in a 2003 ADA survey, the multi-tasked meal is now the norm. We eat at our desks to save time, save money, be more productive, take care of personal business and occasionally, say workers from a random selection of Baltimore offices, to take a break and relax.

And that, say some experts, is just the problem. Doing anything else while we're eating may be counterproductive to what lunch breaks are supposed to be about - physically and mentally recharging ourselves.

"When Mozart was writing his concertos, it wasn't done while he was reading The Wall Street Journal," says Sidney Mintz, 82, a retired professor of anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University. "He only did one thing at a time. Society wasn't busy telling him he didn't have enough time."

Mintz is in mid-tirade on the subject of desktop dining, as it is now called, and its corollary, Americans' ever-intensifying obsession with the time we think we don't have. In his view, eating - along with breathing and having sex - is one of the most important things human beings do. Our current eating trends, he says - combining quick and easily prepared meals with other activities to save time - reflect our distaste for food and food rituals that connect us with other people and the taste and texture of what we're eating.

We treat eating, Mintz says, as if "it's an interruption, a distraction: unpleasant but necessary. ... If you're concentrating on something else, you don't care what you put in your mouth."

Of course, people have always eaten at work. The venerable brown-bag lunch of sandwich, chips, cookies or fruit is as much a part of the American workplace as file cabinets and paper clips. What's changed is office automation - the computers most office workers now spend their days in front of, silent and staring - and the increasing demands on worker time and productivity it's created.

Desktop dining and the shrinking lunch break - few people take a full hour anymore - have become major trends. In addition to the 67 percent of American workers who eat lunch at their desks, the ADA survey found that 37 percent do coffee and keyboards for breakfast, and 61 percent are all-day desktop snackers.

For Fred Jorgensen, director of multimedia strategy for Titan Digital, a high-tech communications firm in downtown Baltimore, working through lunch is "part of doing business in the 21st century. ... If you don't want to work a 13-hour day, you've got to multi-task somewhere."

Jorgensen, 30, eats - usually leftovers from the previous night's dinner - at his cluttered desk four out of five days a week, while taking calls or catching up on industry news. Titan shares office space with two other tech firms, and the communal microwave is, he says, "not kempt," so today's lasagna will be eaten cold, as usual.

He says he looks forward to lunch, especially the one day a week he eats out, but admits there is a difference. At his desk, "I tend to eat faster than I should," he says. "I don't digest the food as well."

Jann Edmondson, 31, an information analyst at T. Rowe Price, says she often works through lunch so she can save time and leave the office early, although, in fact, she rarely does.

She sees her office eating habits as part of a larger pattern.

"How often do I sit down and enjoy a meal without being involved in something else?" she says. "I'm always eating on the go, watching TV. It's a whole lifestyle."

When she eats at her desk, she says she tastes her food about 25 percent of the time. "I wish I would take more time for myself," Edmondson says. "I'm a big ball of stress because I don't take time to relax. I don't even think about it."

Thinking about food is probably what people need to do more of, says Noralyn Wilson, a registered dietitian and ADA spokeswoman. Feeling relaxed and satisfied after a meal "starts in the mind," she says. "If your mind is distracted, you don't get the full benefit of the meal. ... Your brain has to be satisfied."

Divided attention also can lead to overeating or decreased productivity, she says, because "you're more productive when you're focused."

In other words, your mom was right: You shouldn't try to talk, or type, with your mouth full.

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