Companies Making Employees Fatter By Giving Them Free Food, Study Finds

ATLANTA — When you see those celebratory cupcakes in the breakroom or the free pizza from your appreciative officer manager, just walk away. All that free food at work may very well be making you fatter, a new study finds.

Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn that most of the foods provided to workers while on the job are loaded with sodium and refined grains and very few healthy options like whole grains and fruits.

“To our knowledge, this is the first national study to look at the food people get at work,” says Stephen Onufrak, lead study author and an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, in a media release. “Our results suggest that the foods people get from work do not align well with the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

For the study, researchers pored over data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Acquisition and Purchasing Survey that shows typical weekly household food purchases. They zeroed in on the foods and beverages 5,222 employees were being offered at work in common areas, breakrooms, meetings and work-related social events. They also wanted to know what U.S. workers purchase from vending machines or in workplace cafeterias.

What they found is that about one-fourth of study participants eat food they get at work at least once a week. On average, this amounts to 1,300 empty calories per week that are mostly made up of solid fats and/or added sugars. Can you say donuts? Free food accounts for more than 70 percent of the junk food consumed at work, the authors found.

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So what could employers do to improve employee health? Researchers say health and diet programs offered by companies are often a great way to encourage healthy options.

“Worksite wellness programs have the potential to reach millions of working Americans and have been shown to be effective at changing health behaviors among employees, reducing employee absenteeism and reducing health care costs,” says Onufrak. “Since we found that a lot of the foods obtained by employees were free, employers may also want to consider healthy meeting policies to encourage healthy food options at meetings and social events.”

Workplaces could also make it easier to find healthy options in their cafeterias and vending machines. Researchers are currently studying data on foods specifically purchased from these workplace sources.

Findings were presented June 11, 2018 at the American Society for Nutrition 2018 annual meeting.