Thought for food: Small changes at work make big differences

Rebecca Weitzel
Rebecca Weitzel

Picture this. It’s 2 on a Monday afternoon when you wander into the break room for an energy boosting cup of coffee. You spy a plate of brownies on the table with a note attached. “Please take one.” You’re still full from lunch, and the thought of brownies hadn’t crossed your mind — until now. Suddenly, you’re overcome with the desire to sink your teeth into a chocolatey bit of goodness. What do you do?

If you’re like most people, you grab a brownie or two and savor every bite. If this were a rare occurrence, you’d incur little damage. However, the food cultures where many of us work include treats as daily rituals, frequent meetings over food and drinks and trips to fast-food joints for easy lunches and Starbucks for sugary coffees.

It’s likely our workplace food cultures are shaped at least in part by the attitudes, beliefs and habits we acquired growing up. Many of us had parents or teachers who rewarded us with treats for behaving well or working hard. Now we believe goodies are a great way to reward employees or show appreciation for our co-workers. Others lived in scarcity and learned to eat as much as possible anytime there was access to food. Although this behavior no longer serves us, we continue to scarf down food at work just because it’s there — even when we’re not hungry. Still others grew up believing “healthy” foods taste bad and aren’t fun to eat. So we continue to opt for sweet or salty treats and high-calorie lunches because we believe they’re more enjoyable.

Combined, these individual behaviors generate such powerful forces in the workplace as social norms, frequent temptations and a lack of access to wholesome foods that contribute to our expanding waistlines and declining health.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 80 percent of cases of obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes can be prevented through such lifestyle changes as diet. Moreover, eating well improves our energy and focus so we can perform well at work and thrive.

So what can we do in our workplaces to promote good nutrition?

First, start with an assessment of your food culture. Take a look in your break rooms, job sites and vending machines. Note the types of foods and beverages provided by the business as well as foods brought in by employees. Where are these foods stored? How much is consumed? How frequently do managers reward staff with donuts or pizza? How often is food served in meetings?

Next, optimize for good health by leveraging the insights from studies conducted at the food lab at Cornell University. This body of research demonstrates our food choices are more a function of what food we see, how it’s presented and how convenient it is than willpower or what we actually want.

Consider the following findings and related tips for making changes in your workplace:

What we see first is what we’ll eat most. We also gravitate toward foods that are visually appealing. To leverage these realities, place such healthy foods as whole fruit in a beautiful bowl out in the open on the countertop. Cut up a variety of veggies and place them center stage in the refrigerator. Tuck sugary treats and packaged foods behind cupboard doors or cover them with foil. Ask your vending machine provider to move healthy options to eye level and less-healthy fare to the bottom.

We automatically eat less food when it’s served on a smaller plate. Keep small plates on hand for fun foods or catered lunches.

We overeat when we serve ourselves from large containers. If your organization purchases snacks in bulk, consider portioning these out before making them available to staff.

One Cornell study found that an effective workplace wellness strategy was to connect 10 percent of managers’ compensation to their efforts in promoting healthy choices. If this seems too big a leap, consider recruiting managers to help design best practice guidelines that avoid giving food as rewards, reduce lunch meetings by 25 percent and offer healthier options at company sponsored events or when purchased with company funds.

Achieving better employee nutrition isn’t about banning brownies. It’s about making small changes to food cultures that can make big differences in the ability of team members to eat just a little better every day.