The snack drawer in an office kitchen is a bewildering place. Faced with a variety of pre-packaged options — from protein bars to fruit leather, chocolate wafer tubes to Cheez-its — it’s hard to choose what to eat, let alone pick a healthy option to bring back to your desk. But not choosing a nutritious snack at the office, warn scientists in a new American Journal of Preventative Medicine paper, can be a sign of poor eating habits outside of the workplace, too.
By looking at the results of a two-year “Choose Well, Eat Well” survey of the eating habits and health profiles of employees at Massachusetts General Hospital, the researchers determined in their study that the employees who bought the least healthy food at the workplace cafeteria were more likely to have poor health outside of work.
This may seem like an obvious connection, but it hasn’t always been clear why people made unhealthy food choices at work. Do we eat unhealthy snacks at work because they’re there, or is there a deeper relationship between our eating habits at home and at the office? The data, which covered 602 employees between 2016 and 2018, suggest it’s the latter.
When hospital employees bought food at the cafeteria during the study period, their purchases came with one of three labels: green for healthy, yellow for less healthy, and red for unhealthy. The scientists, from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, tallied up the proportion of green, yellow, and red foods for each person over three months, comparing that score to another metric that measured everything a person ate in a 24-hour period (both inside and outside the workplace).
With this record of employees’ eating habits both during work hours and over a full day, the team then brought in data on each individual’s body mass index, blood pressure, blood sugar, and hypertension and prediabetes or diabetes diagnoses.
Looking for relationships between all this data, the team found that the people who ate the least healthy food at work were most likely to have an unhealthy diet outside the workplace, be overweight and/or obese, and have risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The researchers note a couple of key takeaways from their study. First, it shows that tracking what employees eat at the workplace is a good way to gauge their overall health — and could perhaps help employers identify the best way to roll out health and wellness strategies at the office and the people who could most benefit from them.
Second, it suggests that simple red-green-yellow labeling of healthy and unhealthy foods is a useful tool, not just for employers to track healthy eating habits but also for employees who may need help doing so. This, they explain, is a clever way to avoid dictating what people snack on while also helping them make their own better-informed decisions. It’s also a good way of making sense of the deceptively unhealthy snack foods increasingly available today, like chocolate-smothered granola bars or baked potato chips that are still, well, chips.
“Although eliminating the sale of unhealthy foods from workplace locations is another option,” the team writes, “simplified labeling strategies provide an opportunity to educate employees about the nutritional content of items, without restricting freedom of choice.”
What the study doesn’t address is how to prevent people from choosing the unhealthy option even if they know it’s unhealthy or, equally problematic, from eating enough servings of the healthy option that it becomes unhealthy.
At the very least, it forces us to confront our own office snacking behavior, which can feel so automatic we don’t think about it at all. Whether we’re snacking at work because we want to take a break, because we’re bored, or because we’re simply hungry, this study suggests making a mindful choice at the office could set us up for healthy eating after hours as well.