It's a fat, sugar, and salt free-for-all: A bowl of chocolates greets you at the reception desk. A box of doughnuts sits next to the coffeemaker. Clients send vats of gourmet popcorn; coworkers bring in homemade brownies. That's not even counting the constant celebrations: the birthday cakes, the pizza parties. If you still feel a little peckish, the vending machine beckons.
Our workplaces are notorious derailers of healthy eating. A survey of 500 office workers across the country, conducted last spring by the grocery delivery service Peapod, found that 63 percent of employees struggle to eat healthfully at the office, and nearly half of them said it's primarily because of all the tempting snack foods just within reach.
How did office eating get so out of hand? We asked experts to explain why we munch so much junk at work -- and what we can do to regain control.
An Irresistible Urge
Offices didn't always bring on binges. According to David Kessler, M.D., former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and author of "The End of Overeating", it once was considered rude to walk into a colleague's office crunching chips. But the rules have changed over the past 20 years, he says, as the food industry has discovered -- and begun banking on -- the fact that foods with fat, salt, and sugar drive consumption (more on that later).
"They put [these types of snacks] on every corner and made them available 24/7," says Kessler. "They made it socially acceptable to eat at any time and turned food into entertainment." Now when people eat in meetings, no one thinks twice.
We've also become a society that celebrates instant gratification and convenience. Another cultural culprit is the American emphasis on efficiency; after all, it's easier to stay at our desks and crank out the work when we're just shoving in a candy bar.
And since the snacks have come flooding into the office, we've started using them in all the ways we use food socially -- as a way to bond with each other, as a reward for a job well done.
The implications, however, go beyond culture: According to Kessler, even a location can be a cue that leads to cravings. Once you eat a chocolate candy at the receptionist's desk, you may associate that spot with the sensation of chocolate melting in your mouth. Nibbling a piece each time you pass reinforces the connection, so eventually just seeing the front desk makes you expect chocolate. "Simply walking in the office door may set off the urge to eat," Kessler says.
Workplace nerves can also feed bad snacking habits. When we're anxious, we typically turn to comfort foods -- those sugary, fatty combinations. Why? Because eating sugar and fat causes the brain to release natural feel-good opiates. No wonder you end up in front of the vending machine after a particularly insane morning.
"If you're being bombarded with stress, [eating] distracts you," says Kessler, "and you end up feeling better for a moment." Unfortunately, that moment soon disappears. Downing foods that combine fat with sugar, salt, or both -- as many snacks do -- activates dopamine and its brain circuits, Kessler adds, further focusing your attention on thoughts of food.
"We used to think it was primarily drugs that did that," he says. "But we now know that foods with [these ingredients] have the ability to activate our brain circuits the same way."
On a subconscious level, some of us may also think of food as payback for our labor. Food psychologist Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think", asked people to estimate the number of calories in a brownie while they were at work. Later, he asked them to estimate the calories in the same brownie on a day off.
"We found that people at work estimate the calories as a whole lot less than they do on their day off," Wansink says. He suspects that working -- and resenting it a little -- prompts us to treat ourselves by overlooking some calories.
Colleagues can influence our choices too. Consider this: Wansink recently studied diners eating family-style and observed how many calories they ate.
"The most powerful influence is the person right next to you," he says. "The more she takes, the more you take." Interestingly, women were particularly influenced by the quantity the person next to them ate, especially if that diner was another woman. So a decision as seemingly innocuous as where you sit during an office function might affect your diet.
Admittedly, dealing with office snacks can be difficult because you can't control your coworkers. But it's not hopeless. Our experts point out steps you can take to resist the temptations:
Make lunch substantial. A puny microwave meal sets you up to snack. Highly processed foods won't satiate you, says Kessler. "Buy real food. It'll make the cues around you less powerful." Bring leftovers, or keep whole-grain bread, turkey, and tomatoes in the office fridge for an easy, healthy lunch.
BYOS. Bring a few healthy snacks to work daily. Aim for foods both nutritious and filling, like dried fruit and nuts, an apple with a mini gouda cheese, or whole-grain crackers and nut butter. You'll be less susceptible to those cookies in the break room.
Talk yourself down. When you find yourself walking toward the office candy jar, put on the brakes. "Say to yourself, 'That candy is not my friend. I'll feel better for a moment, but then I'm going to eat more and more. It's not going to satisfy me,''' says Kessler. Simple awareness can help you halt the cycle.
Level with the "feeders." Consider having a friendly word with the people who supply the goodies, Kessler says, and explain how snacks can be so difficult to resist. You could also counter the junk buffet by bringing healthy group snacks, like fruit and nuts.
Strike a balance. If you eat a cookie, don't beat yourself up about it. Just make the effort to choose healthier options in other ways -- for instance, take the stairs instead of the elevator.