Health: Free Food At The Workplace Could Promote Unhealthy Eating Habits, Study Finds

When discussing the health impact of the workplace, conversations often revolve around the sedentary behavior it enforces. Another factor impacting the health of Americans may be the food provided at work, especially free food options, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We were kind of surprised that so many of the foods were free,” said Stephen Onufrak, an epidemiologist in the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the CDC. “People may not even be realizing how many calories they’re getting.”

Findings from the new research were presented at the American Society for Nutrition annual meeting during Nutrition 2018 held in Boston on June 11.

The study looked at 5,222 employees from nationally representative survey data, examining food or beverages obtained at work. These items may have been purchased from vending machines and cafeterias or were provided for free in common areas, meetings, work events, etc.

“To our knowledge, this is the first national study to look at the food people get at work,” Onufrak said. “Our results suggest that the foods people get from work do not align well with the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

Almost a quarter of the study participants obtained food from work at least once a week, the results revealed. On average, they consumed almost 1,300 calories from workplace food on a weekly basis. However, the vending machines may not be entirely to blame as free foods were estimated to account for 71 percent of all calories acquired at work.

“With employees spending eight hours a day on average at their place of employment, a lot of people may not be aware of all of the calories they get from work, especially from foods they get for free,” said Onufrak.

Employees reported items like pizza, soda, cookies, brownies, cake, and candy being made available at work.

According to the study, workplace food tends to contain high amounts of sodium and refined grains and very little whole grains and fruit. High levels of empty calories were sourced back to the solid fats and added sugars.

Employers were encouraged to facilitate change by introducing healthy food options at meetings and social events and ensuring cafeteria food and vending machines follow food service guidelines.

Onufrak also recommended worksite wellness programs which have been effective at cultivating health-conscious behavior among employees, reducing employee absenteeism and health care costs.

“We hope that the results of our research will help increase healthy food options at worksites in the U.S.,” he added.

The data for the research was obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Acquisition and Purchasing Survey. For their next study, the team will conduct a similar analysis using another dataset involving foods that are specifically purchased from vending machines and cafeterias in the workplace.

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