When you’re running late in the morning, do you tend to grab a doughnut and a cup of coffee on your way to the office? When you’re working on a big project, do you usually skip lunch and eat at your desk? In the afternoon, do you raid the candy machine when you get hungry? On your way home, when you are exhausted and don’t feel like cooking dinner, do you grab something from the deli, telling yourself you’ll eat better tomorrow?

Eat

If you are like many Americans, this scenario happens on a regular basis, and a recent study shows it is taking its toll on our productivity at the workplace.

Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU), the Health Enhancement Research Organization and the Center for Health Resources at Healthways surveyed about 20,000 employees at three companies in different geographic parts of the country who completed a work-related survey each year from 2008 through 2010. The researchers examined what they term “presenteeism” — which they defined as being present at work but not performing at top productivity levels. Here are a few of the study’s findings:

Key findings from the study include:

  • 66 percent of employees with an unhealthy diet were more likely to report lost productivity
  • 50 percent of employees that only exercised occasionally reported lost productivity
  • 28 percent of smokers reported lower productivity levels than non-smokers
  • Employees that rarely eat healthy snacks at work — such as fruits and vegetables — were 93 percent more likely to report a greater loss of productivity.

“Total health-related employee productivity loss accounts for 77 percent of all such loss and costs employers two to three times more than annual healthcare expenses,” according to the lead author of the study, Ray Merrill, a professor in the Department of Health Science at BYU.

Employees who ate healthy meals and snacks were 25 percent more likely to have higher job performance, while those who eat five or more servings of fruit and vegetables at least four times a week were 20 percent more likely to be more productive at work.

Steps you can take to eat better

So what are some steps you can take to eat better when a deadline is looming and the convenience of fast food beckons?

Start your day with a healthy breakfast. If you don’t have much time, consider a smoothie or some yogurt with granola and fruit. Have some hard-boiled eggs ready in the fridge for some quick protein.

Bring healthy snacks with you to work. Avoid processed and convenience foods. Choose whole-food options, such as an apple or a banana, carrot sticks, cubed cheese, almonds or yogurt. The American Dietetic Association recommends using an insulated lunch bag with a freezer pack to keep your food cold until you can put in the office refrigerator. A good rule of thumb is not to let more than two hours go by before putting it in the fridge.

Make time for lunch. It’s tempting to think you’ll save time by eating lunch at your desk, but research shows that you will perform better if you take the time to get away from the office and eat a healthy meal. The time away is especially beneficial if you include a brisk walk on your way to and from that meal.

Plan your meals. When you know crunch time is approaching, prepare extra quantities of some of your favorite meals to freeze and have as leftovers. That way you can still have a healthy home-cooked meal when you are too exhausted to shop or to cook.

Drink plenty of water. When we are under stress, it’s more important than ever to stay hydrated. Our brains depend on fluid to operate properly, so when we don’t drink enough water, alertness and productivity suffer. Research shows that a decrease of as little as 1 to 2 percent of fluid levels in our brains can result in impaired short-term memory and deficits in attention. Try to keep a bottle of water at your desk and refill it throughout the day.

To keep germs at bay, keep some antibacterial wipes in your desk drawer and use them to clean your desk at least once a day – more often if you are eating at your desk. And, while hand sanitizer can come in handy, don’t forget good old-fashioned hand-washing.

The BYU study revealed that the loss of productivity was highest for workers in the 30-39 age group and was lowest among workers 60 and older. The loss results were higher for women respondents and highest among clerical or office workers in the service and transportation industries. The lowest level of productivity loss was among employees in industries such as farming, forestry, fishing, construction and mining.