Late night snacking may be hurting your work performance the next day

RALEIGH, N.C. — It’s safe to say most people are guilty of raiding their kitchen for a midnight snack occasionally. While that might have snackers worrying more about unwanted pounds, a new study finds it may also lead to a bad day at work. Researchers from North Carolina State University say unhealthy eating habits have a link to poor work performance the next day.

“For the first time, we have shown that healthy eating immediately affects our workplace behaviors and performance,” says corresponding author Seonghee “Sophia” Cho in a university release. “It is relatively well established that other health-related behaviors, such as sleep and exercise, affect our work. But nobody had looked at the short-term effects of unhealthy eating.”

Study authors entered this project with two questions, does unhealthy eating really impact your work life and, if so, why?

The team surveyed 97 full-time U.S. workers, asking each a series of questions three times a day for 10 workdays. Before leaving for work, participants reported their physical and emotional well-being each day. At the end of their shift, they answered questions on what they did workwise. Before bed, the group reported on all their eating and drinking habits after leaving the office.

‘Unhealthy’ eating makes people less helpful at work?

For their study, researchers defined “unhealthy eating” as any time respondents reported feeling like they had eaten too much junk food. Unhealthy habits also included overeating in general or having too many late-night snacks.

The results reveal those engaging in unhealthy eating habits were more likely to have physical problems the next morning. Those issues included headaches, upset stomachs, and bouts of diarrhea. Along with physical discomfort, unhealthy eaters also reported suffering more emotional strains the next day. These strains often involved feeling guilty over their bad diet choices.

Researchers say the result of all this led to changes in how the group functioned at work the following day. Unhealthy eaters were more likely to report engaging in less “helping behavior” and more “withdrawal behavior” during their shift.

Cho says helping behavior refers to workers helping colleagues and going the extra mile without anyone asking. On the other hand, withdrawal behavior refers to avoiding work-related situations, even while you’re still at the office.

Emotional stability can fight off a bad diet

Researchers note participants who were more emotionally stable were less affected by a night of unhealthy eating. These people displayed a better ability to cope with stress and had less emotional volatility. Even after a poor diet choice, emotionally stable people reported fewer physical or emotional strains the next day. They also had fewer changes in workplace behavior.

“The big takeaway here is that we now know unhealthy eating can have almost immediate effects on workplace performance,” the assistant professor of psychology explains. “However, we can also say that there is no single ‘healthy’ diet, and healthy eating isn’t just about nutritional content. It may be influenced by an individual’s dietary needs, or even by when and how they’re eating, instead of what they’re eating.”

“Companies can help to address healthy eating by paying more attention to the dietary needs and preferences of their employees and helping to address those needs, such as through on-site dining options. This can affect both the physical and mental health of their employees – and, by extension, their on-the-job performance.”

More food for thought

Researchers add that there are plenty of eating details the study needs to address.

“One confounding variable is that the way our questions were phrased, we may be capturing both unhealthy eating behaviors and unhealthy drinking behaviors related to alcohol,” Cho concludes.

“That’s something we will want to tease out moving forward. And while we focused on evening diet, it would be interesting to look at what people are eating at other times of day. Are there specific elements of diet that affect behavioral outcomes – such as sugar or caffeine content? Can there be positive effects of unhealthy eating, such as when people eat comfort foods to help cope with stress? This promises to be a rich field of study.”

The study appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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