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Temptation can lurk around every corner at work. Photo: Jupiter Images

The clock ticks around to 4pm and the stampede to the vending machine begins. The chocolate wrappers crinkle and the chip packets pop. It's the familiar symphony of the late afternoon munchies.

But being "truly" hungry is rarely the reason we choose our favourite snacks. There are four main reasons you'll reach for the unhealthy options in the afternoon, particularly if you're busy.

1. You're stressed

Potato, pea and bacon frittata.
A homemade frittata can be a better option for afternoon tea. Photo: Rob Banks

Chronic stress is a big contributor to weight gain. It increases the stress hormone cortisol, making us more likely to eat for pleasure and reward, rather than hunger. This is particularly important if we are dieting because restriction changes chemicals in our brain, making the craving for food rewards even stronger. This makes it difficult for us to stick to our healthy eating plan.

2. You're tired

Working hard, sleeping less or not being active enough can make us tired. One study found that even just one night of poor sleep increases the hormone ghrelin. This is the hormone responsible for making us feel hungry, and when it's higher we're more likely to snack. When you're tired, you're also more likely to make food choices you'll regret later, because the ability to make healthy choices is reduced.

3. You're distracted when eating lunch

Think about the number of times you've worked, scrolled through status updates or read while you've eaten lunch. Researchers from the University of Surrey confirm that distractions make it easy for us to mindlessly eat. When we don't concentrate on the food going into our mouth, not only are we at risk of overeating at that meal, but our mind doesn't register that we're full. This can lead to overeating later in the day.

4. Breakfast didn't have enough healthy fuel

Eating a healthy breakfast is too often overlooked. We may eat something high GI (eg. cereal and fruit or toast and jam) and feel fatigued and hungry in the afternoon. Instead go for a breakfast with small amounts of good quality carbohydrates (oats, wholegrain breads) combine this with at least 15 grams of protein (eggs, salmon, nuts, non-fat Greek yoghurt, cottage cheese) and if you're looking for extra benefits throw in some veggies such as tomato, mushrooms or baby spinach.

Can't resist temptation forever

There can be temptation around every corner of the workplace from birthday cakes to fundraising chocolates and lollies on the desk. Being faced with constant temptation can really stretch our willpower. A landmark paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology identified that willpower isn't like a muscle that becomes stronger. Brian Wansink and his team at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab found the more temptation office workers were exposed to, the more likely they would wear out their willpower and make poor choices.

Tips and tricks

Here are three ways to approach the afternoon munchies:

1. It's OK to be hungry. Many weight-loss programs encourage you to eat an afternoon snack, but the evidence is not clear on the benefits. Snacks in the afternoon make you feel more full and delay your need for dinner. However, studies over the past decade show that when you do eat an afternoon snack, it doesn't lead to a corresponding reduction in the amount of kilojoules consumed in the evening.

2. If you're trying to lose weight, have a low-energy snack for afternoon tea. My favourite is warm vegetable soup (recipe below). You can keep it in small containers in the freezer. Non-starchy vegetables such as cauliflower, zucchini and tomato should make up the bulk of your recipe. Adding fresh herbs or delicious spices adds interest to your creations. So do additional veggies such as green beans, carrots and cherry tomatoes.

3. If you're exercising after work or trying to maintain your weight, try a "healthy fuel snack" in the afternoon. It should be a mix of healthy carbohydrates (whole grain or low GI), protein (tuna, eggs, lean ham, cottage cheese, nuts) and if you can manage it, some vegetables. Options:

-Non-fat Greek yoghurt with berries, apple with a small handful of nuts

-Wholegrain crackers with a small tin of tuna and baby spinach

-Homemade vegetable frittata

What not to do

You have probably heard of swapping chocolate with hot cocoa and chips with air-popped popcorn. Let's face it, the alternatives have nothing on the original and you can end up eating more kilojoules because of the health halo effect (because it's lower in fat or sugar you unconsciously eat more of it). So if you have to have that block of chocolate or packet of chips, just do it. But choose your favourite, not too often and not too much of it when you do.

Vegetable soup recipe (serves approx 6)

2 carrots, peeled and diced

1/2 head cauliflower, diced into small florets

1 zucchini, diced

1 leek (or onion), sliced finely

1 tin salt-reduced tomatoes, chopped

1 cup frozen peas

2 stalks celery, diced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 cup of red lentils

150-200g no-fat tub-set Greek yoghurt (eg. Jalna or Chiobani)

2 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp garam masala

1 tsp smoked pakrika

1/4 cup chopped coriander (nearly a bunch)

Small amount of macadamia nut oil

Method

Soak the lentils in 1 litre of hot water for 15 minutes.

Heat the oil in a large heavy-based pot. Add the leek, garlic, carrot and celery and cook on a low heat, stirring frequently until the leeks have softened. Add the remaining vegetables and dried herbs and spices and cook over a medium high heat for a few minutes. Then add the lentils and the water they have been soaking in. Bring it to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Once cooked, incorporate the yoghurt (stir before adding if the yoghurt is a little separated) and fresh coriander. Stir to combine then serve.

Tara Diversi is an assistant professor at Bond University and an Accredited Practising Dietitian.