Remember the slice of supreme pizza you snagged at the lunch meeting?
The fudge brownies your cubemate brought to cure the Monday blues?
How about the carrot cake to celebrate John Doe's retirement, the peanut butter cookies in the kitchenette, the baked potato chips that got you through the afternoon?
People have to eat, and with workers spending more and more time in the office, it only makes sense that people would reach for the easiest and most accessible options. Unfortunately, those options are not always the most healthful. Let's get honest: That was two slices of supreme pizza. And those potato chips? Fried.
People also like to eat, especially in the office where shoveling things in their mouths can serve as a convenient distraction from working on that spreadsheet ... or writing that article. But, moving on — researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that working adults obtained nearly 1,300 calories per week from foods and beverages they got at work. The findings emphasize that a number of Americans eat in the office — often for free — and that they snack on items that can add up to a lot of empty calories.
Stephen Onufrak, the lead author, said obesity is a problem and he thinks the approach to prevention should be comprehensive. The workplace, he said, is a place to start.
“With the current obesity epidemic, I think we really need to address the problem through multiple approaches,” Onufrak, an epidemiologist in the CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, told The Washington Post in a phone interview Tuesday. “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.”
Onufrak presented the research earlier this week at the American Society for Nutrition's annual meeting in Boston. It has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The researchers examined data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Acquisition and Purchasing Survey and found that among 5,222 working adults surveyed in the United States, 22 percent 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 that were obtained from common areas.
That translated into an average 1,277 additional calories, according to the study.
(Fun fact: The Washington Post employees have a Slack channel specifically designed to alert their colleagues to the whereabouts of leftover goodies. Earlier this week, this message popped up: “ATTENTION: THE CAKE IS MOVING TO THE 8TH FLOOR KITCHEN. DO NOT MISS THIS ONCE IN A LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY.”)
The CDC researchers also found that it was more common for people to get the food free than to buy it.
(Another fun fact: This reporter was drinking her second cup of free coffee while writing this article — then one of her editors offered her a chocolate doughnut with sprinkles.)
The researchers compared foods and beverages obtained in the workplace to the USDA'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, Onufrak, the study's lead author, said.
Rachel Lustgarten, a registered dietitian with Weill Cornell Medicine, said that people spending more time at work 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, 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 3 p.m. slump, Lustgarten said the less-than-healthful 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,” Lustgarten said. She added that employers who offer snacks can make simple substitutions — fresh fruits, nuts and whole grain crackers, and access to a fountain that provides both hot and cold water.
The study's authors said that employers could also use worksite wellness programs to encourage employees to eat more healthfully, especially at work.
“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,” Onufrak said in a news release. He added that such 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.”
Yes, certainly, give us more healthful options — just don't do away with our freebies.