Eating lunch at your desk again? You might want to rethink that. Most people only occasionally clean their desks before eating, which means that your desk can be a “bacteria cafeteria,” according to researcher Dr. Charles Gerba at the University of Arizona.
An American Dietician Association survey found that 57% of workers snack at their desk at least once a day, and three-fourths only occasionally clean their desk before eating.
“Desks are really bacteria cafeterias,” said Gerba, who does research on germs in the workplace. “They’re breakfast buffets, lunch tables and snack bars as we spend more and more hours at the office.”
Gerba and his researchers found that desks can have up to 100 times more bacteria than a kitchen table.
Julie McCord, infection control manager, North Mississippi Medical Center, said good hand hygiene goes a long ways.
“Germs are everywhere,” McCord said. “That is always going to continue. I think there are a lot of things we could all do to improve that like good hand washing. Regardless of where we eat, we should wash our hands or use hand sanitizer. You could wipe a surface with Clorox. But my opinion is unless you washed your hands, you could still increase your chance of germs.”
Jana Milam, registered dietician at University of Mississippi Medical Center Pavillion, Jackson, said the results showing desks can be germ laden are not surprising.
“Are you kidding?” she asks. “People are going to the bathroom and opening doors that may have viruses on the door knob. A good thing I do is keep Germ-X on my desk. Any kind of antibacterial hand gel is good. I use it constantly through the day after I have had a patient or been somewhere where I have handled door knobs. We just aren’t good about keeping our phones clean. There may be other people who use our phones who have germs.”
Aside from germs, she said bringing your own lunch is probably the healthiest thing you can do. You can prepare healthier foods at home with less fat and sodium than you usually get with takeout.
“One of the worst things we do is get takeout and bring it to our desk,” Milam said. “There are some good frozen dinners out there that are fairly healthy. You need to check the sodium and get less than 400 milligrams of sodium.”
But the lunch from home or anywhere else still doesn’t need to be eaten at the desk. Milam said studies show that people who get away from their desk for lunch actually concentrate better in the afternoon.
“If you just sit in another room or outside, your mind is more refreshed and ready to meet what you have to do in the afternoon,” Milam said. “I think, too, if you can get up and walk around a bit after lunch it can keep you from being sleepy in the afternoon. That is a common thing that happens after we eat lunch. We get sleepy.”
She also doesn’t recommend skipping lunch. That lowers the metabolic rate so you don’t burn as many calories.
Melissa Spiers Ladner, manager of clinical nutrition services, Memorial Hospital at Gulfport, said eating at the desk can lead to bad food choices and possible overeating.
“When you eat at your desk you are probably multitasking — checking e-mails, catching up on reading or completing other job-related duties — and therefore not paying attention to what and how much you are consuming,” Ladner said. “I do recommend brown bagging your lunch as a better option than eating out or having something delivered in. Choose salads, more vegetables, whole grain breads, lean meat and fruit. A lot of the carry-out foods are usually very high in calories, high in fat and lower in fiber.”
She advises getting away from the desk for a break as a great stress reliever. A change of scenery or enjoying a friendly talk over lunch can clear the mind and lead to increased productivity when you return to work.
Kathy Warwick, dietician, owner of Professional Nutrition Consultants LLC, Madison, agrees desktop dining can lead to “mindless eating.”
“One of my issues with eating at your desk is if you are not paying attention to what you are eating, it is real easy to eat more than you meant to,” Warwick said. “We always tell people not to eat while watching TV, talking on the phone or doing other things because you tend to eat unconsciously. For example, before you know it you have eaten a whole bag of chips.
“If you can sit at your desk and the phone not ring and no one distract you, that is one thing. But I don’t see that happening very often. I try to encourage people not to eat at their desk much because of the distraction issue, but also because of the need to remove yourself from your desk, go for a walk, take a deep breath, relax and get away from the telephone. If you never get away from the desk, never get a break from stress, that may send you to the snack machine in the afternoon.”
When eating at work, her suggestion is to take lunch out to the picnic table or a different environment from your desk to get away from the phone and computer screen.
“It is nice to have that break,” Warwick said.”
Don’t make the excuse that you are too busy.
“I talk to people who say, ‘I just can’t leave my desk’,” Warwick said. “Everyone gets 15 minute breaks, and everyone deserves a few minutes away from their desk.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.