Why It’s Hard to Eat Healthy at Work

Think back to January 1st… did you make a resolution to eat healthier this year? Did you walk into work on January 2nd to see leftover holiday treats calling your name? If so, you’re not alone. The workplace can be a tricky environment for those wanting to eat healthy. Becoming aware of how your eating habits at work can impact your overall health is the first step.

Here are three reasons you might be making poor nutrition choices and/or gaining weight at work.

Your mood affects what you eat

Stress is a normal physiologic response, and causes an increase of the release of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is involved in the “fight-or-flight” reaction and research shows that when cortisol levels are higher, we are more likely to choose foods that are hyper palatable (think junk food, fast food, foods high in calories, etc.), even if we typically don’t eat these types of foods. Chronic stress can alter how a person metabolizes sugar, their resistance to insulin and how their appetite-related hormones work. (Learn more about how to combat stress eating in this article.)

Distracted, or mindless, eating can have an impact on your food choices and total energy consumption as well. (Note: Practicing mindfulness can help you snack healthier.) This interaction between food and mood is exacerbated when there is hyper palatable foods readily available. Tip: Stay away from the vending machines and keep candy off your desk.

Groupthink influences your behavior

“I’m going out for lunch, does anyone want me to pick anything up?” Does that sound familiar? A 2014 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that people conform to the “eating norms” in a social setting. Habits of the group have a big influence on your habits. This means you’re much more likely to join in Pizza Tuesday or chip in for Friday morning donuts. If you are looking to make a change in your eating habits, use this groupthink to your (and everyone else’s) advantage! Perhaps start a trend by swapping the heavy bagels and cream cheese for a sweet fruit plate and some hot coffee.

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The celebrations never end

There is always a reason to celebrate in the workplace: birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, promotions, welcoming new team members and wishing others good-bye. Of course, these are important events and deserve recognition, but the never-ending celebration isn’t so good for your long-term health if these events are always accompanied by sweets. Consider having a treat in the office once a month for all the birthdays and then on each individual birthday, celebrate by taking a break at lunch to walk outside and get some fresh air and sunshine. If the foods you are trying to stay away from keep popping up in the break room, keep them covered. Research shows that you are more likely to pass on something if it is in an opaque box—out of sight, out of mind.

I like to remind people that ice cream on the first day of summer doesn’t make you unhealthy, just as one salad a month doesn’t make you healthy. Health is largely determined by your habits, and creating healthy habits at work will help you feel good and live well.

Elizabeth BedellElizabeth Bedell Marino is a registered and licensed dietitian and the Coordinator for ProMedica Executive Health Program. For her full bio, please click here.