Is Your Workplace Making You Fat?

Herba Blogger

Another Monday is coming around, and you’re gearing up for another round of dieting. Checklist in hand, you’re feeling in charge. Tempting foods out of the house? Check. Bowl of fresh fruit on the counter? Check. Cut veggies placed front and center in the fridge? Check. But as you stride into work with your healthy homemade lunch, you’re faced with cinnamon rolls in the breakroom, a vending machine full of junk food, and a co-worker with a jar of chocolates on her desk. Check, check and check.

I once worked in an office where fresh doughnuts were delivered to the breakroom every morning—and this was a cardiologist’s office. I don’t even like doughnuts, but it was still hard to resist a bite or two every time I’d go in to refresh my coffee. Despite my protests that we were perhaps sending the wrong message, the doughnut delivery persisted, so I bought a little coffee maker for my office so I could avoid the lunch room altogether. 

In a workplace study published a few years ago1, Dr. Brian Wansink showed just what a powerful persuader the sight of food can be. He placed covered dishes filled with chocolates on the desk of every secretary in an office building—half of them clear, and half of them white china—as a “gift for Secretary’s week.” Every night for two weeks, he’d count what was eaten, and then refill the dishes. Those clear dishes had a clear impact: secretaries dipped in 71% more often from the clear sweet dishes—and ate an extra 77 calories a day. Do that every day for a year, and you’d pack on an extra five pounds.   

Making food a little harder to get affects how much we eat, too. In another study2—with a different group of secretaries—Wansink provided everyone with clear sweet dishes full of chocolate, but he moved the dishes around from week to week. One week the sweet dish was on top of the desk, then it was in the desk drawer, and another week it was six feet away on top of a filing cabinet. Sweets on the desk was easy to get, so the secretaries indulged an average of nine times a day. But when they had to work for it, they walked all that way to the filing cabinet only four times a day.

Sweets in the workplace are just part of the problem. Your workplace could be a minefield of temptations, so you need to have a good offensive strategy. And that means keeping foods out of sight and mind, and making sure you have healthy alternatives available. I had one patient who put a mini-refrigerator in her office to stash her lunch and healthy snacks—so she could avoid the lunch room altogether.  

Vending machines have a way of calling out to you, especially around 3 or 4 PM when you’re hitting an afternoon slump. Again, make that food harder to get. Maybe you don’t keep cash with you at work, or maybe you find another route to the restroom that doesn’t take you past the vending machine. Better yet, bring healthy snacks to work with you—some fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, some low fat cheese and whole grain crackers, or a carton of yogurt.

Here’s something else that helps. Next time you’re faced with food that you know you shouldn’t have—and probably don’t even really want—ask yourself this: “If this (doughnut, cold pizza, stale popcorn) weren’t here, would I go out of my way to get it”? 

1Painter et al.  Appetite, 38:3, 237-8, 2002.

2Wansink et al. Int J of Obesity, 30:5, 871-5, 2006.

By Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

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