Free food in the office is a great perk, but may not be the healthiest

The office can be a dangerous place for people trying to eat healthily. Even if you’re lucky enough to work somewhere that provides free snacks, when you go to the communal fridge to grab a mini-tub of hummus and some baby carrots at 3 p.m., you might find yourself reaching for a bag of chips to dip instead. After all, you’ve worked hard today, right? And you’ve almost made it through the entire day. You deserve a reward, don’t you?

That has definitely been my own logic on more than one occasion. And then there are the mandatory celebrations of birthdays, retirements and holidays. Are you really going to turn down that cupcake for Janet’s birthday and look like you’re not game for celebrating her life? (Especially when you find out they come from the good bakery.) Probably not.

As it turns out, these office eating challenges aren’t unusual; in fact, a large study presented at the American Society for Nutrition’s annual meeting found that the foods we eat at work tend to contain high amounts of sodium and refined grains and not much in the way of whole grains and fruit.

“To our knowledge, this is the first national study to look at the food people get at work,” Stephen Onufrak, epidemiologist in the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement. “Our results suggest that the foods people get from work do not align well with the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

The study looked at the workplace eating habits of 5,222 employees from across the U.S. and included the food or beverages they purchased at work from vending machines or cafeterias or that were provided for free in common areas, at meetings or at worksite social events. Nearly one-quarter of participants ate food they procured at the workplace at least once a week, adding up to almost 1,300 calories each week.

Somewhat predictably, the foods we munch on at our desks tend to be high in empty calories (the bad kind that come from solid fats and/or added sugars). And it’s not just trips to the vending machine in the hallway — more than 70 percent of these empty calories are coming from the food we get for free.

What can be done?

Predictably, the study’s authors call on employers to provide healthier options that are also appealing for their employees. They also suggested implementing workplace wellness initiatives to help everyone get on the same page about healthy eating.

“Worksite wellness programs have the potential to reach millions of working Americans and have been shown to be effective at changing health behaviors among employees, reducing employee absenteeism and reducing health care costs,” Onufrak said in the statement. “We hope that the results of our research will help increase healthy food options at worksites in the US.”

Ultimately, though, we’re all grown-ups here, and it’s up to us to decide whether to reach for that banana or pack of peanut butter cookies when we hit the midafternoon slump.

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