The crucial connection between on-time meals and working adults` health

When was the last time you ate your meal on time? Yes, it’s a high possibility that we delay our meals every day. Most of us are stuck in the daily grind of our work schedules and in the bargain often forget to eat our meals on time. It is especially a challenge for working adults who are held back by their work. They not only eat a late breakfast or simply skip but even end up eating lunch late or simply missing it again before acidity kicks in and they start feeling sick. It is only then that people actually realise how much they have been taking their meals and thus nutrition for granted. Health experts in Mumbai say all of this can have a lot of side effects on the body starting with energy deprivation, increased stress and irritability and majorly being ‘hangry’, that is hungry and angry.

Every year, National Nutrition Week is celebrated in the first week of September. Now, even as we focus on the different aspects of nutrition for children and older adults, the working population is visibly taking their food-eating habits for granted, which directly affects their nutrition and overall health. One may wonder why City-based senior dietician Riya Desai with Wockhardt Hospitals in Mira Road explains, “Nutrition is crucial for working adults as it provides energy, supports cognitive function, and helps maintain overall health.”

People follow a variety of eating patterns but Sweedal Trinidade, chief dietician at PD Hinduja Hospital & MRC in Mahim says the question is what is healthy? While highlighting how the impact on digestion and health is significant, she explains the science behind it. Trinidade says, “Metabolic enzymes fluctuate in 24-hour patterns and rhythmic oscillations between enzymes and metabolites are very important for the smooth functioning of metabolic pathways. Patterns in energy intake should be in concurrence with fluctuations in enzymes. Energy from the food we eat is used to synthesize proteins, DNA, cell membrane components, and polysaccharides. Some of the hormones that control food intake including insulin, glucagon, corticosterone, leptin, and ghrelin depend on food intake and are secreted in specific tissues.”

Considering that nutrition intake is a circadian activity, she says, there are tissue-level fluctuations in the rate of activities throughout the day making right meal timing adherence even more important to be followed consistently.

Keeping this in mind, spoke to Desai and Trinidade to understand the role of nutrition in the lives of working adults. Desai and Trinidade dwell on the need to eat meals on time, eating healthy and at least a minimum number of meals while indulging in home-cooked food.

Many working adults are unable to eat on time because of their long working hours. What are the short-term and long-term effects of not eating on time?

Desai: Due to busy schedules and long working hours it has become a difficult task to manage and keep the meal routine in check. This usually leads to skipping meals for most of us and that can lead to short term effects on the body like energy deprivation, increased stress and irritability, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, low blood pressure, and majorly being ‘Hangry – Hungry and Angry’, that would all, in turn, lead to decreased work efficiency.

Trinidade: Our body clock knows the time for food, digestion, sleep when to generate energy and when to store energy, any deviation from the normal pattern for a long time can disrupt the circadian rhythm hamper digestion, and affect overall health in the long run giving rise to an array of co-morbidities or lifestyle disorders like diabetes, hypertension, respiratory ailments, compromised digestion, poor bone health, hormonal imbalances.

Long-term effects include drastic mood swings, digestive issues, nutritional deficiencies leading to compromised immunity, and altered metabolism leading to weight gain and loss depending on individual body type and eating pattern.

Does gender make a difference? 

Desai: Nutrition is crucial for working adults as it provides energy, supports cognitive function, and helps maintain overall health.

While the basic principles of nutrition apply to both men and women, specific needs can vary based on factors like age, activity level, and individual health goals. Men have a higher amount of muscle mass compared to females and hence their protein requirements are more as compared to women. On the other hand, women go through menses and have a high risk of getting osteoporosis and hence have an increased requirement of iron and calcium as compared to men. Hence, a proper diet consultation with an expert is advised as individual and gender-related needs both differ.

Trinidade: There is a strong correlation between mind, body, and nutrition for optimal functioning of life processes as well as carrying out routine activities, and delivering services with high efficiency. The way best quality helps fuel drives your vehicle and maintains efficiency in the long run, good nutrition also enhances work performance and maintains it over the period of years.

Nutrition definitely differs in men and women as both go through different life processes demanding specialised nutrition at each stage of life. Besides proteins and essential fats, iron, calcium, and folate are required in different stages of life like adolescence, pregnancy, lactation, perimenopausal, and menopausal stages in case in women. Whereas, depending on health status, physical activities men require comparatively high calorie and protein diet.

How can they create an easy timetable?

Desai: Creating a timetable that involves keeping the meals in check, carrying mid-meals like dry fruits, fruits, yogurt, buttermilk, etc. along to avoid making unhealthy choices. Consuming and carrying compact nutritious meals instead of a full thali, preparing ready-to-eat snacks, and mixtures for cooking, using pre-cut vegetables and fruits to ensure speedy cooking, and planning the week’s meals by the weekend with their partner can prove to be very helpful.

Trinidade: It is important for working adults to understand the following: 

1. To simplify this we need to figure out the appetite 
2. Eat when hungry 
3. Avoid fasting and feasting
4. Keep a note of healthy food available in the vicinity
5. Try carrying healthy roasted snacks, fruits, and packed tiffin whenever possible 
6. Eat three major meals and two mid-meals avoid skipping meals. 

What should working adults keep in mind while planning their meals? How many meals should they eat in a day? 

Desai: Working adults should remember that food is equally important for them as their work is as there won’t be work if there is no good health. They should plan for at least three major meals that is breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and two in-between snacks which comes to five meals a day. It is important to remember to include a snack to avoid over-eating while consuming a major meal as hunger is at its peak when a meal is skipped or has not been consumed for long hours.

Trinidade: Ideally meal pattern can comprise three major meals breakfast, lunch, dinner and two minor meals or mid-meals.

Efforts should made to accommodate at least two major meals at home that can comprise of freshly cooked balanced diet. For example, breakfast and dinner One meal can be like packed lunch comprising of roti sabzi or pulao raita or khichdi just to name a few. Mid-meal may consist of fresh seasonal fruit, dry fruit or nuts and seeds. Even a low-fat buttermilk or low-fat sugar-free lassi can be a good option.

How can working adults eat healthy with limited cooking time?

Desai: To eat healthily without cooking, opt for options like pre-cut vegetables, sprouted legumes, wholegrain bread, and lean protein sources. Meal prep on weekends and using meal delivery services can also be helpful. Apart from this those who tend to eat in the canteen should make sure to make healthy food choices. Ensure at least two sources of protein like dal/pulses/curd/paneer/buttermilk/egg/fish/chicken on the plate, not fried, along with a good amount of fibre like a bowl of salad and a bowl of vegetables and a portion of carbohydrates like either roti or rice.

Trinidade: They can follow these steps: 

1. Check for home-cooked tiffin services
2. Plan meals in advance
3. Stock up fruits, nuts, vegetables, pulses
4. You may choose one-bowl meal options like sprouts and curd
5. Make salads with vegetables and pulses
6. Make smoothies
7. Consume dry khakra and curd
8. Make a curd-oatmeal overnight jar.

Does nutrition play a role in preventing heart ailments?

Desai: Yes, nutrition plays a significant role in heart health. A diet rich in heart-healthy vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants that would come from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats can help lower the risk of heart ailments by reducing factors like high blood pressure and keeping cholesterol levels in order.

Trinidade: Cardiac ailments don`t occur overnight. Years of unhealthy eating practices contribute to the same along with stress and lack of good sleep. Healthy eating definitely nourishes the system, strengthens immunity, and reduces inflammation thereby supporting positive cardiac health.

Even as many opt for junk food, how can they innovate with regular food? 

Desai: Innovate the regular food by switching the cooking methods from fried to grilled/steamed or baked options. Homemade is best made as we know because one can prepare the same recipes at home as they can keep a check on the amount of oil being used and can also maintain the quality and hygiene of food. An example can be a frankie if made at home, can be made in multigrain atta, loaded with vegetables, and ensure a source of protein in it too. If a person has to make a healthy choice outside, one can always choose multigrain options instead of maida-based products, juices, buttermilk over colas, green tea, and coffee over regular tea/coffee.

Trinidade: They can innovate with junk food by doing the following:

1. Frankies can be made like multigrain flatbread and vegetable wrap
2. Whole-wheat base pizza with cottage cheese
3. Grilled, roasted and sauteed starters tossed in herbs for flavour rather than fried. 

What is the biggest challenge for working adults to lead a healthy lifestyle?

Desai: The biggest challenge for working adults to lead a healthy lifestyle is often time constraints due to the busy schedule and extended working hours that lead to work always being a priority over food. Hence, it is important to make sure that there is a work-food, life balance to maintain a healthy body.

Trinidade: Home food is the best food goes the saying but working adults are always pressed for time and struggle to spend time with loved ones. That is where home-based get together get converted to outings and parties with not-so-healthy options at disposal. Cooking is outsourced and at times a regular practice, which is not wholesome and balanced. A busy work schedule leaves little time for self-cooking or eating on time. 

Is lack of exercise a reason for unhealthy working adults? Does exercising in the office help? 

Desai: Lack of exercise can contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle, weight gain, weakened muscles, etc. Incorporating physical activity, even if brief, during office hours can be beneficial. Taking short walks, using stairs, or doing ergonomic exercises on the desk can be highly beneficial.

Trinidade: Physical activity plays a vital role in keeping an individual healthy. Yes, exercise in the office helps because it keeps the metabolic rate high, and increases alertness and stamina.

Even if adults are unhealthy, what are some tips to get back on track with nutrition and exercise?

Desai: To get back on track, start with small, achievable goals for both nutrition and exercise. Gradually increase activity levels and make healthier food choices. Seeking professional guidance from a dietitian or fitness expert can provide personalised support.

Trinidade: Working adults can do the following: 

1. Include at least 30 minutes of physical activity 
2. Avoid junk and processed foods
3. Keep healthy roasted snacks, fruits, nuts and dry fruits handy
4. Avoid fasting and feasting 
5. Avoid fad diets
6. Maintain a meal pattern as per appetite and schedule 
7. Pay attention to deficiency 
8. Get a regular health check-up 
9. Consult a registered dietician.

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