The Construction Worker Diet
Eating Right on the Job Site
It should come as no secret that you burn a lot of calories on the jobsite. But what you may not realize is just how many calories you burn. All you know is that you’re hungry and tired at the end of the day. But, did you know that as a construction worker you can burn up to 300 calories per hour on the job? Compare that to an office job, where workers only burn 102 calories per hour. You’re burning three times as many calories as the average cubicle warrior.
The downside of working construction is that getting your lunch at the jobsite isn’t always convenient, unlike the typical office worker. Usually you’re stopping out before work to pick up some Mickey D’s before heading out to the job site (or some newbie is out making a Mickey D’s run for everyone else). While you’re getting a lot of calories in a typical McDonald’s meal, you’re also killing your health.
For instance, say you get the Big Mac Meal that comes with fries and a drink, you’re looking at 1,320 calories. However, with those 1,320 calories you’re getting 51 grams of fat, 192 grams of carbs and 1,425 mg of sodium. Working hard you’re going to want to consume at least 2,500 calories per day and then some to make up for all the calories you burned.
Here’s the problem, you only consumed 1,320 calories, but you still need to consume another 1,180+ to get to where you need to be. However, you already consumed 79% of your daily value of fat, 64% of your daily value of carbs, and 60% of your daily value of sodium. And these numbers are based on a 2000 calorie diet. Which means, you have to make up for 500 more calories and still consume the same percentage of fat, carbs and sodium as recommended.
So, while you can knock a few percentage points off of those numbers above, you get the basic idea. By consuming this fast food meal, you ended up consuming an unhealthy percentage of fat, carbs and salt. Now, this isn’t to say you’re eating McDonald’s meals every day, but you’re probably consuming other fast food which is just as unhealthy. Or maybe you’re splitting a pizza with the guys or something similar. Maybe you’re even hitting up the vending machine from time-to-time too. Fact is, you’re not eating as healthy as you should be or could be.
How to Eat Healthy on the Jobsite
The good news is that there is a simple solution to eating healthy as a construction worker. All you have to do is pack your lunch every day. That’s it. No gimmicks or special tricks, just pack your lunch. Now, this will require a small bit of effort, but nothing like the work you’re used to doing.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Some basic nutrition information
- A heavy duty lunch box
- Some recipes
- An ego that isn’t fragile
Let’s explore each of these in a little bit of detail. If you want to skip ahead and just see what are the best foods to pack (without the education) you can do so by clicking here. Otherwise, each section isn’t too long and the information will prove to be incredibly helpful.
Basic Nutrition Bootcamp: Foods for Construction Workers
A construction worker is a lot like a weight lifter and so there is an overlap in the diets of construction workers and body builders. For one, both construction workers and body builders need a lot of protein. Protein is used primarily for rebuilding and repair damaged cells and tissues. As a construction worker (and a body builder), you put your body under a lot of stress and your body will need to repair itself. It needs protein to do this.
Secondly, both body builders and construction workers need a lot of complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are turned into glucoses to use as energy. However, the nice thing about complex carbohydrates is that your body digests them more slowly so you don’t get a sugar spike right away and then the slump right after, which can make you feel tired throughout the day. Instead, with complex carbohydrates you get a slow and steady release of energy. Also, with complex carbohydrates you’re getting more nutrients.
And the most important thing you can do is make sure you’re consuming enough calories, as this is going to be your fuel for the day. This means eating a big breakfast that’s high in calories (mostly protein and complex carbs). It also means make sure you don’t skip your meal for the day, even if you’re busy. Then, make sure you eat dinner right when you get home. Either have dinner ready for you or have it already cooked to heat up when you get home.
As mentioned above, your breakfast should consist of a variety of complex carbohydrates and proteins. You can research these on your own as the list of all the complex carbs and proteins are too long to mention. But here are some good options to get you started:
- Oats/Oatmeal: Some people turn their noses up on oats, but eating oats is one of the best ways to blast your body with complex carbohydrates. They contain a lot of protein and fiber, so you don’t get that blood sugar spice. Not to mention the fact that they decrease heart disease.
- Quinoa: When thinking about breakfast, your mind doesn’t immediately jump to quinoa. However, this ancient grain not only packs a lot of carbs, it’s also higher in protein when compared to other grains.
- Whole Grain Wheat Bread: Eating whole grain bread can be beneficial in lowering your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and rates of heart disease (Healthline, 2019). Look for 100% whole grain wheat bread at the grocery store. If it doesn’t say 100% whole grain or if includes high fructose corn syrup as an ingredient, don’t buy it.
- Green Peas: Peas have a lot of fiber and also lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol (the bad kind). They’re also surprisingly good with eggs and hash browns.
- Sweet Potatoes: One of the last things you’d think of as a good breakfast food is sweet potatoes. However, sweet potatoes are one of the best sources of Vitamin A you can eat and they can be made into tater tots or even hash browns. You can even find these at most supermarkets nowadays already pre-made. They’re also good for curbing sugar cravings.
- Chia Seeds: Chia seeds contain about 5 grams of protein for every ounce. They’re not a meal in themselves but great to mix into other foods. Try mixing some chia seeds into some low-fat yogurt or a bowl of oat meal.
- Egg Whites/Egg Beaters: Unfortunately, egg yolks contain a lot of cholesterol, but you still have the ability to eat eggs whites. If you take the yolks out of 5 eggs, you can easily get 18 grams of protein from the egg whites. If you don’t want to waste the egg yolks or miss out on the protein in the egg yolk, try Egg Beaters instead, which contains 6 grams of protein per serving.
- Protein Pancakes: One of the best additions to the pancake world are Kodiak Cakes. Not only do they pack 14 grams of protein per serving (3 flapjacks), they also have a healthy dose of fiber, calcium and iron.
- Fish: Certain types of fish are great for breakfast, especially salmon and mackerel. Salmon is good with eggs and delivers around 40 grams of protein per serving. Mackerel is also good with eggs but only deliver 25 grams of protein, however, the protein found in mackerel was actually found to reduce fatigue during exercise (RunnersWorld, 2016). Sardines are also an excellent breakfast choice, and taste really good with coffee (which will probably be unbelievable to you until you try it).
- Breakfast Burritos: If you pack them with the right ingredients, black beans, sweet potatoes, Egg Beaters and a few slices turkey bacon, and use whole wheat tortillas, you can have a fairly healthy breakfast burrito. This breakfast burrito will give you up to 25 grams of protein, or less/more depending on how big you make them. These are also great because you make a ton of them and freeze them for an easy morning meal (lasts about a month frozen).
- Apples: Unfortunately, an apple a day doesn’t actually keep the doctor away. Nevertheless, eating an apple every day has been shown to reduce cancer and neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s) thanks to its high levels of antioxidants, especially quercetin (Cornell, 2014).
- Avocados: Most fruits don’t contain healthy unsaturated fats but avocados do. These healthy unsaturated fats are good for the cardiovascular system. In fact, avocados actually lower LDL cholesterol and they contain over 20 different nutrients (Harvard, 2018).
- Bananas: Rich in potassium and fiber, bananas are great for breakfast and easy to take with you to work too. You can even eat one on the drive in. They’re a good option since you don’t have to clean them and they’re easy to eat by hand. They also hold up fairly well, even in the hot sun.
- Dried Fruits: Dried fruits such as apricot, dates and prunes all pack a lot of calories and also have a lot of fiber. They’re also full of vitamins and minerals. In fact, they contain three to five times more micronutrients than fresh fruits (Healthline, 2019). They’re also great because you can take them with you anywhere, or even keep them in your pocket for an on-the-job snack.
- Coffee: Despite what California says, coffee is very healthy and will give you an extra energy boost in the morning. In fact, studies have found that drinking coffee an hour before an activity can “improve athletic endurance and reduce fatigue” (Harvard, 2019). Although, for those who already drink coffee, this should not come as a major shock.
The Hard Hat Guy recommends Clout Coffee out of Omaha, Nebraska. Clout Coffee is a bourbon barrel aged coffee, which takes on the unique taste of whatever type of bourbon was made in the barrel. The bourbon is dumped and the fresh barrel is used to store the green coffee beans before roasting. No two batches are exactly the same taste, so you get a unique tasting experience every time.
Although breakfast will give you the fuel to start your workday, lunch is going to give you the fuel to keep going until the end of the job. Too often many guys are overworked and yet they’ll skip lunch, saying they’re too busy to eat. Try not to make this mistake as skipping meals can actually cause your metabolism to slow down. This will make it harder for your to lose weight and can actually cause weight gain (Piedmont, 2020). So carve out a bit of time, even if it’s only ten minutes, to grab a quick bite.
Here are some good foods to take with you to lunch:
- Sandwich: A sandwich made with 100% whole wheat bread is an excellent choice. Be sure to choose lean meats, like turkey, add a tomato and load it up with some leafy green lettuce too. Try to avoid the mayo and any cheese if possible. Opt for mustard or ketchup instead.
- Spaghetti: Spaghetti is available now in a lot of different varieties. Some of the healthiest varieties include 100% whole grain noodles, lentil, chickpea and even spinach noodles. Whole wheat spaghetti has 39 gram of carbs, 8 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber per serving. Opt for plain or vegetable marinara to pair.
- Pizza: Okay, so maybe this isn’t your traditional pizza, but if you make a pizza with whole grain crust, low-fat cheese, spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms in place of meats (or lean meat, if you have to), you’re looking at a very healthy meal. And the best part is, you don’t have to worry too much about counting how many slices you eat.
- Fish: Fish is great for any time of the day, really. Salmon, cod, mackerel, tuna, sardine and trout are all great choices. Any fish, to be honest, is pretty healthy. However, you should limit the amount of fish you eat due to the toxins that can accumulate in fish (like mercury). Fish like marlin, orange roughy and swordfish you should avoid altogether due to the high mercury levels. Fish can contain anywhere from 20 – 30 grams of protein per serving.
- Nuts: If you’re looking for a food that has a whole slew of healthy ingredients and a lot of protein in a tiny package, look no further than nuts. Nuts are loaded with protein, fiber, omega-3 fats (heart healthy), vitamin E, plant sterols and even L-arginine, a substance found to improve cardiovascular function. In fact, one cup of nuts packs around 27 grams of protein.
- Beans: If you ever watched Blazing Saddles you’re probably thinking beans aren’t the best food for the job site. However, if you choose not to eat beans you’re missing out on a lot of protein and other health benefits. Kidney beans, black beans and navy beans will be your top choice for protein with 7-8 grams of protein per cup.
- Turkey Breast: Turkey breast is one of the leanest meats you’ll find outside of fish. It’s also packed with a lot of protein. In fact, it has around 25 grams of protein per serving.
- Chicken Breast: Like turkey breast, chicken breast is also one of the leanest meats available. It has a very similar nutrient makeup and the same amount of protein as turkey, however, turkey is a leaner choice.
- Egg Whites: Eggs aren’t just good for breakfast. They also make a great meal either scrambled or in a sandwich. If you make a sandwich go with 100% whole wheat bread. As always with eggs, opt for Egg Beaters or egg whites and limit your intake of yolks to one a day, if you feel the need to have a yolk here and there.
- Protein Bars: A lot of protein bars are just candy bars with slick advertising to make them appear healthy, really. So, this is one of those things where it really depends on the type of protein bar you’re consuming and how often you’re consuming them. Also, it depends on the purpose. For instance, if you’re the type who is constantly skipping meals, opt for a protein bar instead of skipping. Also, don’t eat them every single day. A few times a week is enough. Quest Protein Bars are going to be your healthiest option with only 7 grams of fat, 21 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber.
- Salad: Okay, so for sure you’re going to roll your eyes on this one. “Just what I need, to bring a salad to the jobsite and get razzed by the guys.” This is why you need to have a strong ego if you’re going to eat healthy. A chicken salad with lots of fruits and veggies isn’t going to win you any friends, but you’ll definitely be the healthiest dude on the construction site.
- Trail Mix: Dried fruits and nuts have already been discussed. With nuts you get protein and with dried fruit you get micronutrients. Here you get the best of both worlds.
- Cocoa: Although very dark chocolate in moderation can be a healthy choice, the various levels of flavanols (the healthy stuff) in dark chocolate can vary. It’s best to stick to what’s been tested. If you have a bit of a sweet tooth, you can safely drink CocoaVia Brand in either hot or cold form. This drink is designed to deliver 450 mg of flavanols per serving which will support your brain, heart and muscles.
- Yerba Mate: Yerba mate is a type of herbal tea that has a decent amount of caffeine. It has around 85 mg per cup, almost twice as much as even the most potent black tea. Yerba mate has also been shown to aid in recovery after exercise (Men’s Health, 2018), a good choice for construction workers who want to recover faster after working hard all day.
- Coffee: Always a good choice to give you a little extra energy boost midday.
Dinner, although still important, is not as backed by science the way breakfast is. However, you should still opt for healthy foods and proteins to help your body recover for the next day out at the job site. You will want to limit complex carbs towards the end of the day though, as you won’t need the same load of glucose for energy as you did in the beginning of the day.
- Barley: Gladiators are also known as “barley men” because they mostly ate foods like barley, wheat and beans (BBC, 2014). Barley is rich in fiber, lowers cholesterol, improves gut health, and may even prevent colon cancer. It’s also rich in micronutrients and phytochemical.
- Starchy Vegetables: Vegetables that are the best for you in terms of complex carbohydrates generally are the types of vegetables you think about in the Fall like pumpkins, squash and sweet potatoes.
- Grains: Try eating some grains that you wouldn’t normally eat. Grains such as millet, bulgur and triticale should give you a good start at exploring the world of grains.
- Brown, Black or Wild Rice: Replace your white rice with any of the rices listed. Rices outside of white rice are actually very healthy. White rice, on the other hand, is not healthy and will cause your blood-sugar level to spike. These rices also aid in digestion and are good for the heart.
- Popcorn: More of an after-dinner snack really, popcorn is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates and it loaded with fiber. It also makes you feel happy.
- Fish: Not only is it great for breakfast and lunch, fish is also a great choice for dinner for all the reasons mentioned already.
- Soup: Soups are an excellent way to deliver protein to your body, by adding lean meats such as turkey, lean beef, and skinless chicken breast. As an added bonus, you can also load it up with a load of healthy foods without really having to taste them too much if you don’t like the taste of healthier foods (like kale, broccoli, or spinach).
- Tofu: Tofu sometimes gets a bad rap that is underserved. Tofu is a great nutrient rich source of protein that is both safe and healthy when it is used to replace red or processed meats, contrary to popular belief (Harvard, 2020). Try to include it in your diet a few times a week.
- Spinach: Most people immediately think of Popeye when they think of spinach, and for good reason. Spinach actually does help to build muscles by helping to convert protein into muscle mass (Telegraph, 2008). It also contains 10 grams of protein itself, which is pretty good for a leafy green vegetable. It’s also a great source of vitamins and minerals.
- Lean Meats: Lean meats were already mentioned for lunch but they’re a great option for dinner too. Most people enjoy steak for dinner so if you’re going to go for steak opt for a lean cut like a sirloin tip or a tenderloin. Also, having it pan-broiled will be your best option for reducing the fat content of the meat when cooking.
- Herbal Tea: Herbal teas are a great choice for dinner. Not only are most of them packed with antioxidant, they don’t usually contain caffeine either and will help you to relax. Lemongrass Tea is a great choice as it will improve digestion, ease your pains, and it can even lower cholesterol levels (Culinary Nutrition, 2019).
- Carbonated Water: Get used to drinking carbonated or flavored waters instead of pop. It takes a bit of time to transition, but once you do you’ll feel and look a lot healthier. Perrier is one of the best options for flavorless and flavored water, and Sprindrift is one of the best options for flavored water only.
Taking Your Lunch to Work
If you’re going to pack your lunch, you’re going to need a decent lunch box for the job site. One of the most popular lunch boxes for construction workers is built by Klein Tools called the Tough Box.
Not only is this a heavy duty lunch built specifically for the construction site, it also doubles as a seat so you have a place to eat your lunch. It’ll keep your food cold for the whole day and is large enough to hold a one liter bottle of water. There’s even a handy storage compartment on the top lid for your wallet and keys.
If you an interested in seeing other lunch boxes for construction workers click here.
Best Recipes for Work
You’re going to need some recipes if you’re going to start making your own lunch. Even if someone else is doing the cooking for you, it’s good to be able to show them what you want. Although this is not a definitive list of all the best recipes out there, it’s a good enough list to get you started. Just type “healthy high protein recipes” into Google if you ever need more ideas.
- Omelette by Alton Brown – just replace the eggs with eggs whites or Egg Beaters to make it into a healthy option
- Healthy Breakfast Hash by FitMenCook.com
- Turkey Bacon BLT by Whole Foods
- Breakfast Burrito by Ellie Krieger
- Overnight Chia Seeds in Yogurt by The WorkTop
- Fisherman’s Eggs by The Sophisticated Caveman
- Sesame Shrimp Asian Rice Bowl by FoodieCrush.com
- General Tso’s Chicken by Skinnytaste
- Protein Packed Pasta Salad by Sari Diskin
- Homemade Hot Pockets by Holley Grainger
- Poor Man’s Burrito Bowl by Budget Bytes – This recipe isn’t 100% healthy so you’ll have to replace the white rice with brown rice, cheese with fat free cheese and sour cream with fat free sour cream. The rest of the recipe you can leave as-is.
- Healthy Turkey Chili by Erin at WellPlated.com
- Garlicky Kale, Sausage, and Tomato Pasta by CookingLight.com
- Sweet Potatoes Fries by Mark Bittman at the New York Times
- Crab and Corn Chowder by Healthy-Delicious.com
- Pork Tenderloin with Mushrooms by CookingLight.com
- Skinny BBQ Baked Chicken Wings by GimmeSomeOven.com
- Tofu Tacos from the Food Network Magazine
- Healthy Stuffed Poblano Peppers by Alyssa
- Cabbage Soup by the Food Network Kitchen
- Almond Crusted Salmon by Sara Welch
- Oven Roasted Mackerel (Mediterranean style) by Suzy Karadsheh
Pack Up Your Ego
In order to eat healthy on the jobsite, you’re probably going to have to take a lot of crap from people. Nobody wants to see another guy eating a salad because it’s going to make him think of his poor dietary choices. Most people cannot handle the dissonance of this and they’ll probably call you out. That’s fine, pack up your ego and let them tee off on you.
Odds are, you’re actually going to set a good example for the rest of the crew. After the initial blowback dies down people are going to start asking you about your diet. They’re going to ask you what you eat and why. They’re going to start asking your for recipes or if you can let them try something you brought, especially if it’s something new and interesting they’ve never tried.
By and large, you’re going to set a good example. So, prepare for the blowback and just let it roll off your back. You never know whose life you might change just by making some simple changes in your own life.