Food for thought: Why you should stop snacking at work

Remember the slice of pizza you snagged at the lunch meeting? The fudge brownies your colleague brought in to work to cure the Monday blues? What about the potato chips that got you through the afternoon?

People have to eat, and with workers spending more and more time in the office, it makes sense that people would reach for the easiest and most accessible options.

People also like to eat, especially in the office where shovelling things in their mouths can serve as a convenient distraction from working on that spreadsheet.

But researchers at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US found in a study that working adults obtained nearly 1,300 calories per week from food and beverages they got at work.

The findings emphasise that a number of Americans eat in the office - often for free - and that they snack on things that can add up to a lot of empty calories.

Mr Stephen Onufrak, the study's lead author, said obesity is a problem and he thinks the approach to prevention can start at the workplace.

"With the current obesity epidemic, I think we really need to address the problem through multiple approaches," Mr Onufrak, an epidemiologist in the CDC's division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity, said in a telephone interview.

"I don't think there's any specific solution; I think improving the foods that people get from a variety of different settings is important."

Mr Onufrak presented the research earlier this month at the American Society for Nutrition's annual meeting in Boston.

The researchers examined data from the Department of Agriculture's food acquisition and purchasing survey and found that among 5,222 working adults surveyed in the United States, 22 per cent of them obtained food and beverages from work at least once during a seven-day period.

The researchers then studied the concessions - some of which were purchased from workplace cafeterias or vending machines, others which were obtained from common areas.

That translated into an average 1,277 additional calories, according to the study.

The CDC researchers also found that it was more common for people to get the food for free than to buy it.

The researchers compared food and beverages obtained in the workplace to the Department of Agriculture's healthy eating index - which measures diet quality - and found that "work foods are high in empty calories, sodium and refined grains and low in whole grains and fruit".

That would be sodas, brownies and cookies, cakes and pies, and pizza - the leading source of calories among work foods, Mr Onufrak said.

Ms Rachel Lustgarten, a registered dietitian with Weill Cornell Medicine, said with people spending more and more time at work, they tend to reach for the foods that are the most accessible to them.

But, in general, the snacks stocked in communal refrigerators, pantries or vending machines have little nutritional value.

In fact, Ms Lustgarten said, they are highly processed foods that are high in fat, sugar and sodium.

Though these foods and drinks may seem to be a quick fix for a 3pm slump, Ms Lustgarten said the less-than-healthy options mixed with sedentary desk jobs can lead to adverse health conditions, such as unwanted weight gain.

"Offices in general have an opportunity to influence health," Ms Lustgarten said. She added that employers who offer snacks can make simple substitutions - fresh fruit, nuts and wholegrain crackers - and access to a water fountain.

The study's authors said employers could also use workplace wellness programmes to encourage employees to eat healthier.

"Since we found that a lot of the foods obtained by employees were free, employers may also want to consider healthy meeting policies to encourage healthy food options at meetings and social events," Mr Onufrak said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2018, with the headline 'Food for thought: Why you should stop snacking at work'. Print Edition | Subscribe