Eating Well for Busy Lives

I recently gave a talk on ‘How to Eat Well for Busy Lives’ at the Royal Automobile Club, London. In this article, I share with you top tips for incorporating healthy eating habits into your typical working day.

Starting your day

Is it true that breakfast is the most important meal of the day?

It depends! Scientific studies contradict one another; a recent study suggested that eating breakfast might not help with weight loss but this does not mean that breakfast is bad for you (1).

Regardless of weight loss, a healthy breakfast is an excellent opportunity to get important nutrients into your diet.

Ideally a balanced breakfast should include the following three key food groups:

1. Carbohydrates for energy

2. Protein to keep you feeling full for longer

3. Healthy fats (unsaturated fats) for heart health and absorption of vitamins

What does a balanced breakfast look like?

  • Granola or cereal (a high fibre variety such as muesli or all bran) with fruit and yoghurt or milk

  • A smoothie made with yoghurt or milk (daily or plant-based) and oats

  • Fruit and nut butter on a wholemeal bagel

  • Porridge or overnight soaked oats with fresh/dried fruit

  • Wholemeal toast with poached or scrambled eggs with heart healthy fats such as smoked salmon or avocado.

Remember that portion size matters. Cereal portion sizes are small at around 30-40g. To make this more balanced and filling, add milk or yogurt as this contains protein, which will keep you feeling full for longer. Add a handful of frozen berries and you'll have already achieved one of your five-a-day.

Cereal also provides fibre which is important for gut health (2). Add a few nuts such as almonds or walnuts and you will have included some healthy heart fats (3). With a few simple tweaks you can prepare a easy and balanced breakfast.

The key is to plan ahead. Make your oats or smoothie the night before or perhaps buy your eggs and salmon on the way to work from a coffee shop. If you don’t plan, those office pastries may become a regular temptation!

Mid morning - coffee anyone?

Coffee has a number of health benefits. It contains high levels of antioxidants (which are linked to reduced risk in many diseases) and of course caffeine, a known stimulant (4, 5).

Caffeine works by blocking a brain hormone called adenosine, which results in some people feeling more alert and less tired (6). However, for some people, caffeine can cause palpitations, anxiety and sleep disruption (7).

People with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) might find that it triggers unpleasant stomach problems such as diarrhoea (8).

So what is a safe intake? Studies have shown that up to 400 mg per day (around four cups of instant coffee) seems safe (9). However, caffeine tolerance is highly individual and if you're trying to conceive or pregnant, you should aim for less than 200 mg per day. If you find yourself experiencing symptoms, reducing your caffeine intake or switching to decaffeinated should alleviate these problems.

When deciding which coffee to order, watch out for those calories. A Frappuccino from a high street coffee shop is full of cream, sugar and syrup. At around 550 calories that’s almost a quarter of a man’s daily calorie intake! Switch to a small cappuccino with skimmed milk and it’s only 120 calories.

Whether or not you drink coffee, it's important to stay hydrated at work. Aim for at least eight glasses of fluid per day (more if exercising), and check the colour of your urine to see if you're hydrated. Aim for a pale, straw yellow colour.

Strategic snacking

Snacking isn’t necessarily bad for you as long as you select nutritious and filling snacks (10).

Portion size is the key, and here are some suggestions:

  • Unsalted nuts - around 20 almonds

  • Fruit - a cupped handful

  • Hummus (3 tbsp) and vegetable crudités

  • Two Dark chocolate rice cakes

  • Small yoghurt (125g) with fresh fruit

  • Apple slices with a tablespoon of nut butter

  • Small bag of lightly salted popcorn

If you are travelling, take some snacks in your hand luggage or briefcase to avoid the temptation of chocolate bars and crisps on the snack trolley.


Even with best intentions, packed lunches aren’t always easy or convenient. I’ve looked at some of the popular high street chains with tips on the healthiest options to help you navigate your way through.


Most vegetable and fish based sushi or soups ( portion control: male - 10 pieces sushi, female - 6-8 pieces). Choose avocado and salmon for omega-3 heart and brain health benefits.

M&S, Costa and Pret:

Good choices include filling salads (which contain beans/pulses/buts/oily fish/meat/tofu and vegetables or salad), soups and protein sandwiches (i.e. tuna mayo and salad or chicken and avocado). Avoid regularly eating burgers, fries, creamy salads, mayonnaise and paninis as these are high in saturated fats and calories.

Boots/Tesco/Sainsbury's Meal Deals:

Make that meal deal healthy - you could choose popcorn instead of crisps, yoghurt instead of a chocolate bar, carbonated water for a fizzy drink. For the sandwich or wrap, opt for wholemeal bread with a protein filling such as chicken or fish.

When available, the traffic light food labels can help you to make a quick decision. The red, amber and green colours show at a glance whether the product contains high, medium or low fat, saturates, sugar or salt. For a healthier choice try to choose products with more green and fewer reds. If a food contains red, it doesn’t mean avoid it all together, just try and limit the number of times you eat it.

After work socialising

Whether its' a quick drink in the pub before catching the train home, toasting a success or pre-dinner drinks, before you know it the calories are quickly adding up.

Nutritional profile of popular alcoholic drinks:

  • Standard glass of wine: 175 ml contains 2 units and 158 kcal

  • Large glass of wine: 250 ml contains 3 units and 225 kcal

  • 5% Beer, lager, cider: 1 pint contains 3 units and 222 kcal

  • Spirits without mixers: 25 ml contains 1 unit and 50 kcal

Choose lower calorie drinks such as white spirits and mix with diet mixers, tonics or soda.

Current UK guidelines on drinking alcohol come from the UK Chief Medical Officer. The guidelines recommend that men and women do not exceed 14 units of alcohol per week. Try not to binge drink all your units in one go, and aim for several alcohol-free days per week.

Fine dining

Dining out with clients or colleagues is an important part of business.

But navigating your way around the menu doesn’t need to be at the expense of your waistline. Try and fill up on lower calorie foods such as soups, vegetable-based dishes or shellfish for starters.

Be aware of hidden calories. Ask for sauces on the side or pass on the butter if you regularly eat out. If the main course is rich, compensate elsewhere - perhaps choose a lighter starter or a sorbet or fruit for pudding.

Global travelling

Try to have a meal before travelling and stick to regular mealtimes eating every 3-4 hours, regardless of the time zone.

Limit alcohol, caffeine and salt whilst flying to avoid dehydration. Try and get enough sleep as a King's College London study found that sleep deprivation can lead to overeating by 400 calories the next day (11).


We can all benefit from some exercise so try and fit it into your busy schedule (12).

Don’t get too fixated on the 10,000 steps a day, which the UK government recommend. This is an arbitrary figure originating in Japan during the 1964 Olympics when the first step counter, the "manpo-kei" (which translates as 10,000 step meter) was developed (12) .

Ideally, we should aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week but this doesn’t need to be in a gym. It can be as simple as three short and brisk walks a day.

Regardless of how many calories you've burnt or steps you've walked, exercise has other benefits, such as improved mood and mental health. Focus on finding a form of exercise which you enjoy, whether that's pilates, yoga or running (13).


Written by Harriet Smith, RD and Sharon Kallos, ANutr