You’ve committed to a healthy eating plan, cleared out your cupboards, and are working hard on your weight goals. The only problem: You can control what’s in your house, but not what your coworkers leave on the conference table. When you step into the office, is it a siege of muffins and donuts, chips and pop, cookies and candy? A new study digs into the “work of eating at work,” interviewing employees who felt “sabotaged by food that simply materialized in the workplace.” The researchers coined the term “food altars” to describe common areas where snacks pile up—the candy bowl at reception, the wall of treats in the near the coffee maker. Sometimes, it can feel like office snacks are setting you up for failure.
Lots of companies provide meals and snacks as perks, with unlimited gummy bears and cheddar crackers galore. But what sounds like an amazing benefit can have consequences—employees grumble about weight gain. Rumor has it that at Google, you can never sit more than 150 feet away from food in one of their so-called micro-kitchens. The backlash is the Google 15, the tech version of the freshman 15. Chatting with employees at Google, Pinterest, Square, and Lyft uncovers some common themes: Free food is awesome. These companies offer plenty of healthy options. But you have to take personal responsibility for stepping away from the chocolate-covered peanuts and pretzels.
At Fitbit, employees are empowered with nutrition facts, photos of what a 100-calorie portion looks like, and scannable barcodes that sync with Fitbit’s food logging feature. The snacks themselves are an ongoing topic of discussion. “We’re all about finding your fit, balance and choice,” explains Laura Zucco, Fitbit’s Director of Wellness. “Many of our employees love working for a health and wellness company and they live and breathe our mission. They demand fresh fruit, organic yogurt, and their favorite brands of coconut and sparkling water. But we also have staffers who enjoy more traditional options now and then, from pizza to energy drinks. So we do our best to provide a range of options.”
Whether or not you work for a big company with free lunches and snacks, chances are you’ve experienced weekly cakes and treats to celebrate birthdays, promotions, and more. (It would be impolite not to have a bite, no?) Here are seven smart strategies to help you eat well at work.
- Pack your own lunches and snacks. It’s still the best way to take back control of your midday meal. Check out our nutritionist’s quick and easy tips for packing the perfect lunch! And get some fresh ideas from these healthy eating bloggers.
- Set your own limits. “I have a sweet tooth, but I’d rather spend it on chocolate soufflé cake from my favorite bakery than the bottomless candy at work,” says Larkin Brown, user researcher and in-house stylist at Pinterest. “I try to not even walk down that snack aisle, because once I break the seal, there’s no going back—and a stomachache is in store. If I don’t see it, then I really am content with a peach.” Review your options, and make a mental list of snacks that are okay for everyday and off limits except for special occasions. Cookies and candy are obvious treats, but get real about crackers, pretzels, and granola bars that fake healthy. Better choices: fresh fruit, carrot sticks, plain popcorn, plain yogurt, part-skim cheese sticks, hummus, and nuts.
- Know your serving sizes. Brush up on healthy serving sizes, and when you do grab a snack, stick to a small handful of nuts, or just a few crackers. It’s easy to thoughtlessly fill up a big paper plate, so consider bringing in your own small dish to keep at your desk.
- Out of sight, out of mind. A recent study confirmed what anyone who has ever sat next to a bowl of chips already knows: the proximity of snacks increases consumption. Move temptations off your desk and out of your pod. And talk to your office coordinator about separating drinks and snacks, and putting treats behind cupboard doors.
- Take a walk! There may be many reasons you reach for a piece of chocolate that have nothing to do with hunger. Be mindful if you’re bored, tired, or stressed. If you just got out of a bad meeting or find yourself dragging every afternoon, try taking a deep breath, doing a few stretches, or scoring steps around the block.
- Drink more water! The “food altars” study participants practically chanted, “water, water, water!” With lots of negative foods to avoid at work, water can feel like a positive. Plus, filling up your bottle gives you a break from your desk, a minute to chat by the cooler, and keeps you hydrated.
- Enjoy the occasional treat. The study also discussed how distracting so many choices can be—you’re not alone if you’re back at your desk an hour later, still debating how much you wanted that cupcake. It’s not worth dwelling on it all afternoon, and it can be nice to celebrate birthdays and successes as a team. Just make sure that it’s truly a special occasion, not a daily routine.