Foods obtained in the workplace can add up to trouble for weight and health, according to new research on nationwide eating habits. The USDA-led survey now validates what you may have suspected all along about Friday morning doughnuts and coffee, pizza at work lunches, and soda and chips from vending machines. In short, they are common, and they can lead to weight gain.
The Study on Office Food
Researchers, led by Stephen Onufrak at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity, looked at data from the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Acquisition and Purchasing Survey. The survey looks at where people get their food and what they eat. Researchers will present their findings at the American Society for Nutrition's annual conference, but here is a quick overview.
The study found that more than 1 in 5 adults purchased or received food or beverages from their workplace. The employees who did so get an average of nearly 1,300 calories a week from these foods and beverages. To put that in perspective, that accounts for nearly 0.4 lb. of body fat a week.
Worse, these foods and beverages are not typically nutrient powerhouses. Instead, compared to recommendations and foods eaten at home, office-obtained choices tend to be lower in superfoods like whole grains and fruit, and higher in refined carbohydrates, sugars, sodium, and saturated fats. Options such as cake, pie, cookies, brownies, soda, chips, and pizza abound. [2, 3],
Croissants, doughnuts, or bagels and cream cheese at morning meetings
Fresh fruit (if available) or bring your own fresh fruit or whole-grain mini-bagel
Homemade frozen pizza (if you have access to a freezer at work): spread whole-grain English muffins with tomato sauce, top them with shredded cheese and any veggies, then wrap and freeze. Thaw when you need them; or, just take one slice and supply your own salad.
Candy on the receptionist’s desk
Walk a different route to avoid passing by or have your hands full when you pass by
Chips from the vending machine
Air-popped (or light microwave) popcorn, baked kale chips with olive oil, or nuts, or pickles, sauerkraut, olives, or seaweed snack
Cake, cookies, and brownies for all kinds of celebrations
Dark chocolate stored in your desk, or fresh fruit, or angel food cake
Water, hot tea or coffee, or iced tea or coffee (decaf or caffeinated if it is early enough in the day)
Black coffee, unsweetened green, black, or herbal tea, or coffee or tea with natural flavor boosts such as cinnamon, almond or coconut milk, or unsweetened cocoa powder (baking cocoa)
The True Cost of "Free" Food
We tend to be on the lookout for bargains. Fast food restaurants know they look attractive when they offer bigger sizes of fries or drinks for only pennies more, or let you "make it a meal" by adding free chips or fries and a soda if you buy two sandwiches, for example. The only thing cheaper than "cheap" is "free."
"Free," according to the survey, describes about half of calories obtained at work. Examples include catering at meetings, working lunches with pizza or subs, coffee with creamer and sugar available all the time in the lunchroom, and baked goods that coworkers may bring in for everyone to enjoy.
The conflict comes because "free" for your wallet does not mean "free" for your waistline or health. It can be helpful to shift the definition of "value." Thinking of "value" as, "a lot of food for no or only a little money," can lead to the mentality of eating and drinking anything that is available for free, and a lot of it.
Instead, thinking of "value" as, "a lot of satiety and nutrition for a little bit of food or drink," can lead to healthier habits, such as sticking to healthy, filling foods. These might be foods with protein or fiber, which can include fruits, vegetables, chicken, whole grains, nuts, and cottage cheese, for example. Water is another high-value choice.
Healthy Snacks to Stash at Work
If your workplace does not offer healthy choices, having your own on hand can give you what you need to meet any situation. What you keep at the office can serve a few purposes.
This is some fare to consider to meet those needs while staying on your weight control or nutritious-eating plan.
Satisfy hunger. By bringing your own satisfying foods, you can avoid turning to fast food, unhealthy cafeteria food, or vending machines out of desperation when you are hungry. Shelf-stable choices to keep at work can include canned or pouch tuna, nuts, peanut butter, brown rice cakes, and low-fat popcorn. Refrigerated goods can include hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese, and yogurt. You can bring certain fresh fruits and vegetables, such as oranges, apples, and baby carrots, to work once a week and eat them throughout the week, while bringing the occasional salad or fruit salad can ensure that you always have something healthy and filling when you need it.
Satisfy thirst. Water is a great choice, and always available. Tap water and bottled water both work. Ice water and water with berries or lemon wedges can help you enjoy it more if you do not like plain water. Simply avoiding the sugar and creamer offered with coffee can also help.
Satisfy cravings.Cravings can come on quickly when free bags of chips and pretzels appear at lunch, leftover brownies appear in the break room, coworkers come back from lunch with French fries, or you walk past the vending machine full of sodas. Healthier swaps to satisfy chocolate, salty, crunchy, starchy, and sweet cravings can include dark chocolate, pickles, whole-grain versions, roasted chickpeas or soynuts, and fresh fruit.
When possible, it can help to have one-for-one swaps. For example, if you know subs are coming to the office, maybe you can order yours without bread or with extra vegetables, or bring your own sandwich with grilled chicken and vegetables on whole-grain bread.
Food Logging with Lark to Guide Office Eating
Logging your food can serve a few different purposes. It can help make or keep you aware of what and how much you are eating, since without logging, you may not realize that that small handful of chocolate candies had 400 calories, or you might not remember eating a piece of coffee cake early in the morning when you got to the office.
The experience of logging with Lark goes far beyond calorie counting. Lark offers instant feedback so you can learn what may be good about your food or beverage choice, and what might be a better choice next time. Lark also keeps track of long-term trends and shares them with you. These summaries and insights let you remember office-obtained items so you can tie them to weight trends or see where you may be able to change some eating habits to hit your weight goals.
Finally, logging with Lark can help you make better choices in the moment because of accountability. When considering whether to take and how much to serve yourself, knowing that you will be logging the food may be enough to make you realize that you do not want to need to log that food, or that eating and logging only half will keep you on track to your daily goals.
More Strategies to Make Office Eating Healthier
There are some additional ways to make it easier to pass up unhealthy office fare or make what you get from the office less impactful.
Walk a different way if possible to avoid passing known sources of food, such as the receptionist's desk or break room.
Sit far from food at meetings, come right on time so you do not have much time to get food, and make it a point to not get up for food during the meeting.
Bring your own when you know food will be available.
Have just a small amount to satisfy cravings.
It is also possible that your boss may be willing to work with you to improve choices. One or more of the following may be possible at your workplace.
On-site cafeterias can offer steamed vegetables or salads, fresh fruit, and a lean protein option such as baked chicken breast or fish every day.
Catering orders can always include fresh fruit or a salad, and water instead of soda.
Vending machines and office snack programs can include stock nuts, peanuts, jerky, and low-fat popcorn.
The news that office fare can be contributing 1,300 weekly calories and a load of sugar and salt may be a little shocking, but the information can help. Just knowing what people tend to eat at work may inspire you to take a look at what you are eating and whether you can make a few changes to make your workplace a healthier place for you.
Lark helps you eat better, move more, stress less, and improve your overall wellness. Lark’s digital coach is available 24/7 on your smartphone to give you personalized tips, recommendations, and motivation to lose weight and prevent chronic conditions like diabetes.