IT workers need to take care of more than business

Scott’s computer wallpaper consists of a list of things to which he needs to give attention. A Web developer who works from home, Scott often settles at his workstation as soon as he gets out of bed, and has found that this list helps to remind him that aspects of his life other than work need care. The first item is “eat.”

While this might seem like an obvious priority for most human beings, IT workers are notoriously negligent with their health, and particularly with their eating habits, according to Waterloo, Ont.-based nutritionist and work/lifestyle specialist Linda Barton.

“People come to me worn out,” Barton said, referring to her clientele which mostly consists of people in the IT industry. “Often they have significant health issues including weight gain and headaches, and a lot of this is because they’re just not eating properly. I challenge these people. I ask them, ‘Why are you hungry every day? You have nice hair, nice clothes and nice cars, but you’re hungry at three and starving by five.'”

In her practice, Barton suggests three steps to maintaining a healthy eating routine on the job. Her first tip is what she calls “1-2-3 Energy.”

“I recommend that you approach each eating occasion with the idea of 1-2-3 energy in mind. This means a fruit or vegetable, a grain product and a protein at every meal,” she said. “These things can be a sandwich with fruit or a commercially prepared pasta.”

Barton recommends to her clients that they go to work with an instant breakfast pouch – she referred to it as a 1-2-3 Energy package – in their briefcase and make it with milk, water or a soy beverage.

“I try to recommend things that are as easy as possible,” she said.

Her second recommendation involves timing. According to Barton, the average person should eat every three to four hours in the day, and for those following the 1-2-3 Energy plan, timing is simple.

“Group one is fruits and vegetables, so if you eat from this group you can eat again in one hour. Grains are group two, which gives you two hours of energy, and protein gives you three hours of energy,” she said. “If you only have a Jolt Cola, it will give you energy right away, but will wear off very quickly. Predict when you need to eat your next meal by looking back at what you’ve just eaten.”

In order to simplify this, Barton suggests to her clients that they set a timer on their PDA or computer to alert them to when they should eat next.

Dr. Leanna McKenzie, a Calgary-based physician specializing in gastroenterology and nutrition agreed with Barton, and suggested that eating more often throughout the day is helpful in terms of maintaining energy.

“If you go five or six hours without eating anything, you will get really hungry and then overeat,” she said. She also recommended keeping tabs on the amount of caffeine ingested throughout the day.

“You get an initial high for a few hours, but then you crash.”

According to Barbara Veder, director of clinical services at FGI in Thornhill, Ont., taking frequent short breaks is beneficial in terms of reducing stress as well as enhancing health.

“Every two hours at work stretch your wrists, neck, shoulders and take a quick break – minute or two – to stand up and stretch,” she recommended. “Get fresh air to help get out of the revved up cycle. Change your view, look out a window, take a moment to go to a different part of the building, go for a walk, and connect to people.”

Barton’s third tip is planning.

“To fail to plan is to plan to fail,” she said. “I would never go to speak at a seminar unprepared to speak and feel good. Professionals are prepared, yet so many IT professionals go to work every day unprepared to eat. They don’t have to spend an hour every night making lunch, but should think about ways to plan their food intake.”

McKenzie said it’s not always feasible for people to prepare a meal the night before, but they can make better choices when visiting a food court.

“Japanese food would be a good choice, and there are fast food places that are geared to health-conscious individuals, but don’t fall for fast food traps,” she advised. “Some salads are higher in fat than sandwiches or even burgers.”

Some of Barton’s clients who don’t like to cook have developed a buddy system where a number of co-workers alternate buying lunch for each other, which she said has worked very well.

“Your body doesn’t respond well to the spikes and falls of your blood sugar when you starve yourself and then eat a chocolate bar or a whole row of cookies, especially when you do it again and again,” Barton said. “This leads to stress, fatigue and burnout. Find your balance.”