Most Free Office Food Is Full of "Empty Calories"

Sure, it tastes delicious. But pizza, bagels, and donuts are not the cornerstones of a nutritious diet, and that's mostly what you get at work—especially when the grub is free—according to a new study.

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Jan 22 2019, 6:51pm

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It’s fun to brag to your friends about all the free food you get at work, whether it’s donuts on Mondays or pizza on Fridays. But if you had the sneaking suspicion that all those snacks were more or less empty calories—and lots of them—you’d be right. That’s because the food available at workplaces is usually high in calories, added sugars, and salt, but lacking in whole grains, fruit, and vegetables, according to new research out today.

Pizza, sandwiches, soft drinks, cookies, brownies, donuts, and pastries are among the most common free food items workplaces offer, according to a research brief published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which analyzed self-reported data from 5,222 working adults from 2012 and 2013. Nearly one in four respondents said they indulged in work food at least once a week, and one in 10 did so three times a week. On average, people consumed 1,292 calories a week in food provided at work.

Free office food is the main culprit

While some employees buy food at work, most get it for free. “We thought more of the food people were getting would come from cafeterias and vending machines, but it turns out that it's free stuff provided by employers at social events or meetings,” lead study author Stephen Onufrak, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, told FREE. “Since we found that the majority of the calories people acquire from work are free, it makes sense for people to think about how these calories that they may not be thinking about, are adding up.”

Free food is a big draw for office workers. Firms looking to appeal to younger workers are especially likely to offer the free grub, with Twitter employees enjoying free breakfast, lunch, and snacks every day, and Facebook upping the ante with a Philz coffee shop on its Menlo Park campus. Even BuzzFeed offers free catered lunch twice a week to its New York City employees.

How to keep your free food habit in check

Part of the reason companies offer the free food is to keep employees at their desks longer. What's more, "Many studies show that if food is there, we will most likely eat it," Kristin Kirkpatrick, lead dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, told FREE. One way around that is by "avoiding trigger spots (like the person who always has a full candy bowl) or even to redirect your movements by bypassing the snack areas or cafeteria to get where you need to go."

If you can't resist, "start by simply having less. That means if there are not the healthiest choices that they can’t resist, they can have an appropriate portion. I define that as eating until you are no longer hungry, not until you are full," Kirkpatrick says.

Be mindful of what you eat as well. "They also can go for lean sources of protein, whole grains, if available, and vegetables. Examples are salmon and broccoli with brown rice; stir-fry chicken; a turkey burger on a whole grain bun, or roasted veggies in a wrap," she added.

It's also smart to bring your own food whenever possible. You can work wonders with humble canned tuna, for example, even if you’re not ready to become a dedicated meal prepper quite yet. And the more healthful food you eat during the day, the less appetizing that cold piece of pizza in the lunch room will look will look.

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