Free Food May Be Good For Office Morale, But It Promotes Overeating If Kept At A Close Distance

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Where companies store snacks can make or break an employee's healthy habits. Pixabay

This just in: More companies are looking to offer free food as a way to boost employee satisfaction, as well as incentivize productivity and morale around the office. Whether that's weekly bagels, happy hours, nutritious options under a workplace wellness program, or a full-on campus of cafes — we're looking at you, Google — employers are using snacks to promote continued hard work. But are they also promoting unhealthy eating habits? That depends, according to new research published in the journal Appetite.

Researchers from Saint Joseph’s and Yale Universities found that snack placement determines how much or how little an employee eats. They examined snacking behavior and consumption at Google’s New York Office when food was both closer and farther from a beverage station. When the beverage station was closer to the snack station, employees were more likely to swipe something than when the snacks and beverages were further apart. For men, the likelihood of snacking increased from 12 to 23 percent while the likelihood for women increased 10 to 17 percent.

"It was a bit surprising that an extra few feet of distance between snacks and beverages yielded such a significant change in snacking frequency," lead researcher Dr. Ernest Baskin said in a statement. However, the findings show that “environmental factors can have a fairly large influence on consumer behavior and often these factors sway us unconsciously.”

More than two in three adults are considered overweight or obese, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease. Increased snacking at the workplace can impact overeating, so it’s important to be mindful of the factors, like convenience and distance that influence consumer behavior. In fact, a 2015 study found the workplace can be a “bigger enabler” of mindless snacking than many of us realize, adding as many as 700 extra calories per day.

Interestingly, these differences were greater in men than women. Baskin said this may have to do with self-control and the existing idea that "women have more chronic self-control than men." However, previous studies find it's men who can better control their brain’s response to certain foods, thus exercising more control over their favorite snacks. So more research is required before Baskin can definitively say there are sex differences when it comes to snacking at work.

For now, researchers believe moving healthier snack options closer to beverage stations and/or making unhealthy snacks more difficult to access, such as placing them in a pantry or in a free vending machine, could be a cheap and effective way to both curb snacking and maintain productivity and morale. Researchers also believe these interventions could be implemented at home or used for commercial strategies.

"We hope our findings spark insights and new questions beyond workplace kitchens, helping to inform the optimal design of many eating spaces, such as cafeterias, dining halls, home kitchens, and any other settings in which tempting food challenges our self-control,” researchers wrote.

Source: Baskin E, Gorlin M, Chance Z, et al. Proximity of Snack to Beverages Increases Food Consumption in the Workplace: A Field Study. Appetite. 2016.

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