Compulsive Eating At Work: How To Stop Eating At Your Desk

An interview with Margaret Wheeler Johnson, Women's Editor, The Huffington Post, April 18, 2012

I am a first-year associate at a large law firm in New York. By all accounts I am Going Places and will Be Something someday, but for now it's a lot of "skill building" like managing nitty-gritty tasks and doing document review ... I can manage my eating pretty well during the day, but at night I return home unsatisfied, and a binge results. I... see the direct connection between this emptiness and my eating habits. And I do just need to stare my frustration with my job and my career in the face instead of distracting myself from it with food. I just don't know how. — Letter quoted in "Women, Food and God" by Geneen Roth

When I interviewed Geneen Roth a few weeks ago, I planned to quote her in a quick news item on a new study out of Finland showing that women experiencing burnout at work are more prone to compulsive eating and less likely to overcome it. Simple enough. Yet I put off writing it up. I knew the reason: research all the way from Scandanavia hit too close to home.

When I interviewed Geneen Roth a few weeks ago, I planned to quote her in a quick news item on a new study out of Finland showing that women experiencing burnout at work are more prone to compulsive eating and less likely to overcome it. Simple enough. Yet I put off writing it up. I knew the reason: research all the way from Scandanavia hit too close to home.

Published in the April 2012 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study looked at the relationship between work burnout and emotional eating—eating when you feel bad—or "uncontrolled eating," eating where a person feels unable to stop. The researchers defined burnout as a combination of exhaustion, cynicism, the feeling that your work is meaningless, "lost occupational self-respect caused by chronic work stress," according to the study.

Of the 230 women who participated, those with burnout were more likely to be struggling with emotional and uncontrolled eating, Reuters reported. The women who weren't burned out were able to reduce their uncontrolled eating over time. The women who were burned out weren't.

The findings immediately reminded me of the passage above from Geneen Roth's "Women, Food and God" and the reaction I had when I encountered it for the first time.

I know Roth's work because it's been so useful to me in my own struggles to do something very simple: eat when I'm hungry, stop when I'm full. I used to berate myself for not being able to follow those simple instructions until I realized that while not every woman can relate to my bout with anorexia, the near constant thinking about food and weight is the norm for many.

In the quest to resolve my own standoff with food, news reports on the latest research around food and eating usually aren't that helpful. They are often clinical, reporting the science, with perhaps some obvious advice tacked on the end - if I read one more time that smaller, more frequent meals is the answer to years of struggling with food, I'm not sure what I'll do - and sometimes they are even shaming. (This one on a study of women's "sneaky" secret eating habits —conducted by that lauded research institution, the American Pistachio Growers, no less—is a beaut.)

Roth's work, on the other hand, has helped (and, incidentally, made me quit dogging self-help as a genre). She literally wrote the book on emotional eating—nine actually. She has unlocked why and how women turn to food to cope with their emotions, specifically their romantic relationships ("When Food Is Love"), their spiritual lives ("Women, Food and God"), and their financial lives ("Lost and Found"). She hasn't, however, written about work.

When I read the lawyer's account in "Women, Food and God" in 2010, I thought, Why aren't we talking more about this? And then the Finnish study this spring raised that question all over again.

We know that working in an office isn't great for the body—sitting all day has been linked to greater risk of dying from heart disease and developing metabolic syndrome, a condition that precedes diabetes, and office work in general has been connected to impaired memory, back pain and absorbing a number of toxins.

But I hadn't read much on how a woman's relationship with food impacts and is affected by her career. The study invited a deeper look into that.

I called Roth to ask how she interpreted the research. Actually, I called and blurted out, "Can this be your next book?"

Deflecting the question very politely, Roth said that the running monologue in the minds of women who overeat at work—or anywhere: "I'm afraid to feel what I'm feeling, so I'll tamp myself down and eat." The problem, she said, is that "most of us don't know don't know how to feel our feelings. We're afraid of them. Usually we think we're going to fall apart if we allow ourselves to feel."

And what is it that women are so afraid of feeling in the office? In the case of a young lawyer whose letter Roth quoted in "Women, Food and God," it was stagnation, thwarted ambition, and a sense of being stuck in a situation she couldn't control. "She didn't like where she was," Roth told The Huffington Post. "She wanted to change the situation, but she felt like she couldn't, so she was turning to food." The lawyer's story is a single anecdote, but a recent study by Accenture found that 31 percent of working women born after 1979 feel their career path is stagnant, and 47 percent feel they have a lack of opportunities that is holding them back. How many of those women are turning to food when they feel stuck, undervalued or overworked?

I asked Roth what advice she would offer the woman sitting at her desk, inhaling her food in front of her computer screen, knowing that she's full and somehow inexplicably still eating, and hating herself more and feeling less able to stop with each bite. How could that woman stop herself and find another way to cope?

She answered simply. "Don't eat at your desk." I couldn't figure out if she was speaking to me or readers or both.

I smiled and explained to her that I work on the Internet. No one takes time out for lunch.

That's when I really got schooled.

"Eating at your desk is compulsive eating, basically," she said. "You don't have that much attention that you get to split it like that and give your best self to either one of the things you're doing."

If you happen to be doing, oh, eight things at once? Forget it. "You miss the fullness signals, so you overeat. You miss the pleasure signals. You don't taste the food because your attention is somewhere else. It's lose-lose all around."

But what if it's the culture of your office to eat at your desk, I protested again, or feels like it is? What if there is not an extra second to spare in your day as it is?

Roth was ready for me. "Just because we live in an insane culture doesn't mean we have to be insane, too. Be the one who doesn't do it and see what happens. If one person stops, then people will look at you and say wow, she's not doing that. Someone has to be the one who says, 'I'm not going to do it this way. I deserve more.'"

And now I felt that she was speaking directly to me. ...[Read the Entire Article on Huffington Post]...

4 responses to “Compulsive Eating At Work: How To Stop Eating At Your Desk

  1. Just as I was about to reach out for ANYTHING to eat to let time pass quicker. Thank you so much. True. I feel that I am trapped and it is scary to feel that. Breathing at the moment and about to get some water. Thank you for the insight.

  2. I haven’t worked in an office in years except temp jobs. I don’t miss it. I use to go for a long walk during lunch time when I was “good”. But then I got bored not only with the office routine, but constantly monitoring myself and my calories, that I gave in to indulging in the office goodies that people bring and going out to lunch, etc. I gained 5-10 lbs. and quit before I gained 20-30+ lbs.

    Once someone brought in a decadent looking home-made chocolate cake and put it right near my desk. This was when I was in my “good” phase. I resisted all day because I was afraid it would get me going way off the track………To this day, I think about that chocolate cake and think I should have gone for it. Life is too short to pass up chocolate cake ever…………….

    Offices are evil, depressing environments alot of the time.

  3. I also love the comment that just because we live in an insane culture doesn’t mean we have to be insane also. When I went to college I was very in control of my diet and calories while living in the dorm. The average girl was 5-10 lbs. overweight but constantly going out for fast food, ordering pizza, doing some food binge……After a semester,I was tired/bored with being in such control and thought it was more fun to be like them. Afterall, even though they thought they were 5 lbs overweight I thought they still looked cute and good. So I decided to join the ranks. Well, it’s hard to let go..a little bit…..after keeping tight reins on yourself for a long time. In no time I gained 20-30 lbs which lead to a cycle ot yo-yo dieting the rest of my college life. I started out at 107 lbs and graduated at 162 lbs.

    Looking back I should have accepted that I was on the right path, maybe alone, but on the right path regardless. Perhaps, just allowed myself to indulge once a week or something. I still don’t know the answer to that. At 58 I’m still the “good” one who is always skinny and watching her weight. My relatives are overweight but seemingly happy and have fun going out to eat alot and going the whole nine yards. They are fat, married and happy. I am single, thin, healthy (PG) and complacent alone.

  4. It’s very telling about our work culture that when I searched, “how do I explain to my colleagues that I don’t work through lunch,” the top results were things like, “tips for dealing with lazy co-workers.” People boast – and I’ve done it, too – about always eating at their desks or never taking lunch breaks. That’s code for “I’m hard-working/dedicated/important.” I get that sometimes it’s unavoidable (e.g., gathering for a big team meeting where they bring in sandwiches or whatever). What Geneen describes is exactly what happens. I’m not engaging fully in eating or in the work at hand. “Just because we live in an insane culture doesn’t mean we have to be insane, too…” This is brilliant. I’ll save and remember this. This may be my counterargument if someone pushes back on my desire to take a proper break.

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