Consider this your hall pass.
When was the last time you took a real lunch break? You know, one where you got up from your desk and sat somewhere else; where you weren’t using your left hand to eat your sandwich and your right hand on the mouse to finish up that spreadsheet; where you actually savored every bite of your food, instead of shoving forkfuls of salad into your mouth while staring at a computer screen.
Only about one in five North American workers takes a real lunch break, research shows. And while doing so may seem like a luxury in today’s work environment, nutrition and workplace productivity experts say it’s actually more of a necessity, particularly when it comes to your health and career performance. Here’s why:
You’ll Be Less Likely to Overeat
If you’re not working as you’re eating, that means you’re not multi-tasking. And that means you’re more likely to pay attention to what and how you’re eating, which can help guard against overdoing it, says registered dietitian Keri Gans, author of The Small Change Diet. “Most people, though not all, tend to overeat if they’re working while they’re eating, a big reason being they’re not recognizing when they’re full,” Gans says. The belief is that it takes 20 minutes for your brain and stomach to sync up and register that you’re full—so if you’re shoveling down food and distracted by work, you might eat more than you would have if you were being more mindful.
Your Can Replenish Your Stores of Mental Energy
Everyone has only a certain amount of mental energy. It’s vital to our ability to focus, regulate our own behavior, be creative, and make critical decisions. But spending all that mental energy throughout the day can drain our reserves. The longer you go without taking a break, “the more depleted our energy stores get over time, and the more and more effortful each activity becomes,” says John Trougakos, Ph.D., associate professor of organizational behavior and HR management at the University of Toronto Scarborough. But by taking a break from work—yes, a lunch break counts—you replenish those stores. “This makes your efforts easier because you have more energy,” Trougakos says.
You Can Use It as an Opportunity to Bond With Friendly Coworkers—or Recharge in Solitude
It all depends on if you’re an extrovert (who is energized from social situations and interactions) or an introvert (who may find social interactions draining, preferring to recharge solo), says psychologist and career coach Janet Scarborough Civitelli, Ph.D. “For some extroverts, talking during lunch is incredibly energizing,” Scarborough Civitelli says. “But for some introverts, it may be less so—people have to understand about themselves what energizes them and what drains them even more.”
Trougakos says that while taking a lunch break with coworkers can be a great opportunity to network, he cautions against doing it regularly if you find it draining. “If this is not what your preferred choice is to be doing during your lunch time, then you’re still depleting your resources because you have to regulate your emotions and engage in impression management, particularly if you’re having lunch with a supervisor or with coworkers who you may not necessarily feel comfortable around,” he says. “You’re still depleting your mental reserves.” And that just defeats the purpose.
You Might Help to Prevent Burnout Down the Road
The choices you make in the present can affect how you feel later on—and yes, that’s even true for something as trivial-seeming as taking a lunch break. “People can power through for short periods of time in ways that aren’t healthy in the long-term,” Scarborough Civitelli says. “So you may say, ‘Oh, no one here takes a lunch break and we’re all doing fine,’ and sure, you may all seem relatively fine for now. But then it will catch up with you, and that’s when you see things like stress-related illness, burnout, and career dissatisfaction.”
You’ll Be More in Tune With Your Body and Its Needs
Food is many things, chief among them something to be enjoyed and savored, as well as a source of energy to get us through the day. “So if you’re not taking a lunch break and not looking at mealtime as important—and instead as just something haphazard you need to do while you’re at your desk—then how much are you really paying attention to yourself and what your body needs?” Gans says.
It’s an Opportunity to Enjoy Something (Especially If Your Day Is Dragging)
Eat your favorite sandwich. Take a stroll through the park outside your office. Do something that makes you happy with your half-hour or hour of free time mid-day. Why this helps you at work: Positive emotions are a vital factor in creativity, Trougakos says. “So when we have positive experiences and a positive mood, we are more creative. We make more connections between trains of thought and different domains that we might not normally connect.”
It’s Also an Opportunity to Move
If you’re a desk jockey, all that sitting and staring at a computer screen is, frankly, not great for you. “The eye strain, back strain—all of that can take a toll on your body,” Trougakos says. “So getting up and stepping away from your workstation is an important component to having an effective lunch break. If you’re sitting there for most of the work day, then you don’t only have the fatigue and the eye strain, but you’ll also get the subsequent mental strain that comes with that.” Research backs up the idea of moving during your lunch break: A small recent study showed that taking a 30-minute walk during your lunch break is linked with improved moods and even greater enthusiasm come afternoon.