N.B.: I still stand by this advice on how to diet while working a corporate job (and links have been updated as of 2016), but you can also check out our 2016 discussion on how not to gain weight during the summer recruiting season.
Amazingly, everyone I know right now is either trying to get their eating under control (the Fourth of July was apparently a very happy one for everyone!) or outright diet. This can seem like a nearly impossible task if you’ve got cocktail parties, catered dinners, and three-course lunches on a daily basis — especially since so many diet programs require you to cook (or at least eat specific foods that can take a ton of time to prepare). What’s a working girl to do? Here are my best tips for how to diet while working a corporate job…
1. Go slow and choose realistic goals. Now is not the time to try that new fast/”cleanse”/diet pill you’ve heard so much about — particularly if you’re interning with the company for the summer in hopes of getting a job offer. You need your wits about you and your hormone/energy levels as stable as possible. I’m a huge fan of the Weight Watchers program (which you can do online-only for less than $4 per week and never worry about fitting a meeting into your schedule) — it endorses the idea of having a calorie “budget” and encourages you to plan your food intake on a daily and weekly timeframe.
2019 Update: Amazingly, this t-shirt design is still available!!! It’s $10-$17.50 at Threadless.
2. Try to adopt a “one big meal a day” policy, even if you’re not doing a program like WW. For example, if you had a big lunch, have a salad for dinner. To assess how big your meals are, you can always guesstimate calories using free resources like MyFitnessPal or Calorie King.
3. Skip the bread basket. I know it’s hard — all that yummy warm goodness just looking at you. But one roll can be 200-300 calories, and that can add up very easily, particularly if you’re trying to limit yourself to, say, 1500 calories per day.
4. In fact, skip simple carbs as much as you can, and focus on protein and fiber. I don’t subscribe to any sort of idea that carbs are evil, but I do think that when you’re on a diet you have to sort of think of “getting the bang for your buck.” If you’re trying to limit your daily calorie intake, you want those calories to fuel you — to make you feel full for as long as possible, with as much energy as possible. Let’s face it, those “100-Calorie Snacks” just aren’t likely to do that … but protein and fiber will. So if you’re being taken to lunch, aim for lean protein sources (chicken, turkey, lean steak — shrimp and non-fatty fish are particularly low calorie on an ounce-per-ounce basis) and vegetables with as little added to them as possible. If you’re in the mood for dessert, look for fruit — berries are crazy high in fiber if you’re really trying hard. (These are perfect examples of when dieting at a corporate job is a PLUS — all of these menu items tend to seem terribly expensive when it’s coming out of your own pocket.)
5. Watch out for potential landmines. Here’s where it pays to understand the difference between cooking at home and eating out. If you were making a tuna salad for yourself, you might use reduced-fat or low-fat mayo, while a restaurant is highly unlikely to do that. So even though tuna itself is low-fat, the mayo is packed with calories and fat. Some items may be doused in butter (vegetables, pasta) or have butter baked inside it. (I’ve heard a lot of restaurants will hide a pat of butter in a burger to make it taste better.) Some ingredients may not even be on your radar screen as being problematic — for example, 1 cup of coconut milk has more calories than a Big Mac. Always get your sauce or dressing on the side. I’d suggest spritzing all salads and vegetables with lemon wedges — which every restaurant has — and if you still need more flavor, dip your fork in the sauce/dressing before forking your food.
6. Stave off hunger with liquids. Actually, you may not be as hungry as you think you are if you just drink a bottle of water. (Add lemon juice to your water if you’re bloating — it’s a diuretic and works wonders. If you’re actually hungry, though, caffeine is great for tricking you into thinking you’re not that hungry– we find more of a difference with coffee versus Diet Coke (even if it’s decaffeinated coffee) but that’s just us. Watch how much milk you’re adding to your coffee — even that can add up over time.
7. Eat before you go. It may seem counterintuitive to eat MORE to lose weight, but a simple snack (50-100 calories) before you head to that catered cocktail party will help you keep a level head when the booze starts flowing and that cute actor/waiter starts offering yummy treats on a silver platter. Some suggestions for low-cal but healthy snacks that will be filling: yogurt (mix it with Fiber One cereal — in addition to fiber you’ll add crunch), Lara Bar minis, Vitatops, a few raw almonds, oatmeal, or string cheese (I particularly love Trader Joe’s reduced-fat cheese).
8. Implement a system for dealing with hors d’oeuvres. I know someone who has used a system where, for each yummy treat she eats, she eats three healthy ones. Kudos to you if you can do that. Personally, I just try to choose three unhealthy things that have my name on them if they pass me on a tray — and resolve that nothing else shall tempt me.
9. Don’t drink too many calories. Asking for wine spritzers doesn’t save that many calories, actually, but if you’re going to be drinking for 5-7 hours then it all adds up! Amstel Light is my preferred low-calorie beer of choice (about 100 calories per bottle), and most bars seem to stock it. Skip the juice mixer unless you’re sick and go with soda instead (vodka soda, whiskey soda). If you’re really bent on sticking to your diet, don’t alcohol drink at all. In our earlier article about what your drink says about you, one commenter noted that as a lightweight she tries to get to the bar early and “start with a lime and soda with lots of ice, because it looks like a G&T” — this is great advice for the dieters, also.
10. Get whatever exercise you can. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Get off one subway stop earlier and walk the rest of the way. Keep in mind that while cardio is great, weight training will actually have more impact if you’ve got limited time — having more muscles increases your metabolism. (It’s also easier to do without working up a sweat, meaning if you’ve got 15-45 minutes free, you can do that stuff during the workday without necessarily showering). Even if you can’t get to the gym, do some squats before you take your lunch break, or push-ups. Tighten your abs and/or glutes on elevator rides. Do what you can.
Pictured: This image is available as a t-shirt at Threadless. 2019 image updates via Stencil.