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Leisurely Lunch Hour Is Thing of the Past

Job pressures mean that fewer people have the luxury of a midday meal break. For those who do, errands are the priority.

February 25, 2001|HANG NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sarah Sternau can barely remember the last time she enjoyed a leisurely lunch at a restaurant. She guesses it was almost three months ago.

The 24-year-old online music editor is not alone. The so-called lunch hour is fantasy for the majority of busy workers who scarf down their food while they plow through work, according to a 1999 survey by OfficeTeam, a staffing firm in Menlo Park, Calif.

"I try to eat quickly because it gets in the way of work," said Sternau, who puts in 70-hour weeks at LATribe.com. Her typical lunch is trudging to the microwave to warm up soup or pasta and going back to her desk to eat.

But psychologists and nutritionists will settle for this rather than the days when Sternau will skip lunch all together. One-third of Americans forgo lunch at least once a week, according to a 1999 survey by the National Restaurant Assn.

"Part of being in the workplace today, especially the Internet business, is that you always feel behind," Sternau said. "There's always somebody getting a story before you and getting things done before you. I never feel ahead. Taking time out in the day is more indulgence than I feel I can afford."

That mentality is driven by corporate culture, said workplace psychologist Mark Wilson. Most work environments don't look fondly on employees who pamper themselves with such luxuries.

No one's ordered to forfeit eating for work, but it's implied, he said. "A boss will come up to you and tell you he needs this by such and such time," said Wilson, a professor at North Carolina State University. "If you want to meet deadline and keep the boss happy, you choose to skip lunch."

And technology has played a fair share in cranking up the workload, psychologist Gerald Lewis said. Cell phones and pagers allow workers to be reached at any time, even while they're chomping down on a Caesar salad.

Because technology allows us to be more productive, time has become more valuable, Wilson said.

"Do I go to lunch or knock out x, y and z?" Wilson asked. "The pace that you can accomplish things has increased. It used to be that losing half an hour for lunch wasn't going to make a big difference," but now a lot can get done in that time.

Indeed, while some people may not be working through lunch, they're also not sitting down to a meal.

Time spent eating also is getting squeezed out by personal chores. About a quarter of workers spent most of their lunchtime exercising, shopping and running other errands in addition to grabbing a quick bite, according to the restaurant association in Washington.

"Lunch hour for me is not lunch," said Nancy Figueroa, a 25-year-old nurse. "It's time for me to get things done." An hour lunch for her is rushing four blocks home in Norwalk to feed her three young children, do laundry and wash dishes.

For those who do refuel their bodies, experts admit an hour for lunch may be more time than is necessary. Dietitian Gail Frank recalls in the 1960s when an hour was needed because people drove home for noon meals. Now, with less than a fifth of Americans sitting down at a restaurant for lunch, an hour seems abundant.

Federal law doesn't require bosses to give workers a meal period. Under California law, employers are supposed to provide employees with at least a 30-minute break after working more than five hours and a second one after working more than 10 hours.

But it's not just Americans, who are infamous for being workaholics, doing without lunch.

A health company in Australia introduced International No Diet Day to get more Australians to eat a salad or sandwich for lunch. And almost half of the working moms surveyed in Britain said they never or occasionally fill their stomachs at noon.

Skipping out on real lunch away from the desk also is missing out on a chance to tap creativity through an exchange of ideas with others, psychologist Lewis said.

"I think the worker today is working in a more isolated environment, which isn't healthy," he said. "Our brain needs to get away from work. It needs social contact that cafeterias and restaurants can provide."

Besides the drawbacks of being less social at work, people are simply less efficient on an empty stomach, said Nadine Pazder, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. in Chicago. Fatigue from low sugar levels leads to poor concentration.

"You can't expect your car to start if you don't put gasoline in it," Pazder said. "Your body is the same way."

In the long run if the body isn't burning calories on a regular basis, its metabolism slows down and weight gain is a possibility.

Also, it's easier to catch a cold and other viruses when a body's weak from a lack of nutrients, Pazder said.

Restaurants are adapting to the lifestyle change.

One-fifth of the workers surveyed admitted to ordering takeout more often compared with two years ago.

Some restaurants are opening special entrances or takeout counters and reserving parking spaces for those on-the-go, said Robert Ebbin, a researcher for the restaurant group.

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