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How Stress at Work Can Lead to Poor Eating Habits at Home

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Working parents may have a harder time putting healthy food on the table than those who are part-time employed or stay at home, a recent study found. While parental employment provides many important benefits for families, work-related stress can negatively affect eating habits at home.

"An increasing number of studies have observed associations between mothers' full-time employment and less healthful food environments," wrote Dr. Katherine Bauer, a researcher and assistant professor of public health at Temple University's Center for Obesity Research and Education and one of the authors of the study report.

The results of this study showed that full-time employed parents tended to prepare fewer family meals. They also encouraged their children less often to eat a healthy diet compared to parents who had more time to spend at home. Families with both parents working had also an overall lower intake of nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables.

Full-time employed fathers spent even less time on food preparation than working mothers. Work-related stress among both parents often lead to less than ideal eating habits at home, including less frequent sit-down meals and higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverage and fast food by both children and parents.

For the study, Dr. Bauer and her team analyzed data of over 3,700 parents of adolescents living in a Midwestern metropolitan area. The report was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine (August 2012).

Although the study's focus on work-related stress and its effects on families' diets was somewhat unique, its findings should hardly come as a surprise. Parents who try to balance work and child-rearing have to be as efficient as possible when it comes to chores like food-shopping and throwing dinner together in a hurry. Naturally, there is the temptation to cut corners once in a while. Things can become problematic when the easy choices such as a quick stop at the fast food place or pizzeria on the way home develop into a regular routine. Unfortunately that happens all too often.

Especially because of their high stress levels, working parents need to take care of their nutritional needs as best as they can. "Stress increases your need for nutrients," says Cindy Heroux, a registered dietitian and author of The Manual That Should Have Come with Your Body. "The more malnourished you become, the more severely stress will impact both your body and your mind." In times of physical and mental exhaustion, it is crucial to add essential nutrients such as B-complex vitamins and minerals calcium and magnesium as well as antioxidants because the body is less able to store these during stress responses and becomes easily depleted. The best sources are whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and low-fat dairy.

What applies to the parents, applies to the children as well, perhaps even more so. A poor diet diminishes their ability to perform at school and may inhibit their growth and development.

Obviously, many time-strapped parents won't be able to make a lot of changes in their lifestyle overnight. However, there are a few steps they can take to make things less cumbersome after a long workday. For example, older children can help in the kitchen and prepare simple but healthy meals like salads on their own. If there is no time for frequent trips to the grocery store, frozen vegetables and lean sources of protein, such as chicken or seafood, can be stored in the freezer for later use.

What matters most is a good understanding of the importance of a balanced diet, especially in times of stress. The last thing families can afford is getting sick because they're run down and in dire need of replenishing their resources. Sometimes, it may be just a matter of resetting priorities.