A quarter of American workers chow down at least once a week on food offered to them at their workplaces, but what they’re eating there is often unhealthful, according to a study published Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Most workplace food is “empty-calorie” fare — processed products that are high in fat, sugar, salt and refined grains, the study found.
The findings highlight one of many factors fueling the nation’s current obesity epidemic. As background information in the study points out, three in 10 American workers are obese, and they report eating fewer fruits and vegetables than their healthy-weight peers.
Both a poor-quality diet and obesity are risk factors for a host of chronic medical conditions, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some kinds of cancer.
About half of American workers have food or beverage vending machines at their places of work, and about 30 percent of them have a cafeteria, the CDC study also points out.
Yet, surprisingly, very little is known about the nutritional quality of food offered to Americans by their employers.
The new study, which was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is an attempt to address that research gap.
For the study, the CDC researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 5,222 employed adults during a 10-month period in 2012-2013. About one in four — 23.4 percent — of the respondents said they ate food provided at their workplace at least once a week.
The top 10 foods and beverages the survey’s respondents said they either purchased or got free at work were coffee, regular (sugary) soft drinks, sandwiches, tap water, tea, diet soft drinks, cookies and brownies, lettuce salad, French fries and potato chips. These foods accounted for 44 percent of the foods the survey’s participants said they selected from the offerings at work.
Other commonly purchased foods were tortilla and other chips, chocolate candy and crackers.
Lettuce salad was among the top 10 foods only when it was offered for free. Another common food that appeared only on the free list was chicken.
The study also found that the survey’s participants consumed an average of 1,292 calories per week from the foods they obtained at work. Most — 70 percent — of those calories came from free food offered in common areas, at meetings or at workplace social events.
College graduates were twice as likely to eat foods at work during the week than people without a high school diploma.
As the CDC researchers make clear, most of the foods and beverages commonly eaten at work do not align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“Although not as important a source of calories as foods from home and restaurants, food obtained from work may represent an important contribution to caloric intake at worksites among those who obtain them frequently,” the researchers conclude.
The study found, for example, that 11 percent of working adults — 16.5 million people — eat work-provided foods at least three times per week, and 5 percent eat them five or more times per week.
“Improving the nutritional quality of foods obtained at work could have a large impact on the overall diet quality among those employees who frequently obtain foods at work, and worksites present an important opportunity to improve the nutritional quality of food away from home,” the researchers add.
“Employers can offer appealing and healthy options in cafeterias, vending machines, and at meetings and social events,” said Stephen Onufrak, the study’s lead author and a CDC researcher, in a released statement. “One way to do this is by incorporating food service guidelines and healthy meeting policies into worksite wellness efforts.”
Eating healthier at work
Workers shouldn’t wait for their employees to offer healthier foods, however. Bring the food in yourself. Here are some tips for healthy brown-bagging from the Mayo Clinic:
Pick foods from a range of food groups to maximize your energy. Choose fruits; vegetables; low-fat milk, yogurt or cheese; whole-grain bread, cereal, pasta or brown rice; and lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs or beans for your lunches.
Think beyond the typical sandwich and chips. Stuff whole-grain pita bread with sliced chicken, cucumbers, red onion, low-fat feta cheese and a dash of light dressing. Make kebabs with cut-up fruits and pair with low-fat yogurt as a dip. Replace peanut-butter sandwiches with another nut or seed spread like sunflower-seed butter.
No microwave? No problem. Keep hot foods hot with an insulated vacuum container such as a thermos. Fill with hot stew, chili, vegetable soup or leftovers for a satisfying meal on a cold day.
Have easy brown-bag options handy. Pair low-fat cheese sticks and smoked turkey slices with whole-grain crackers, crunchy raw vegetables and a handful of grapes, or try whole-grain pasta salad — made with chicken, vegetables and shredded Parmesan cheese — with low-fat pudding and a crisp apple. Another option: Layer hummus, sliced tomatoes and reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese over whole-grain bread for a taste-tempting sandwich. Add a handful of baked potato chips and a fresh pear for a satisfying meal.
Revive leftovers. Don’t let food from the day before go to waste — turn it into a tasty lunch! Pasta dishes can be enhanced with vegetables, such as a serving of broccoli or a handful of baby spinach. Bring salads to life by adding your favorite raw veggies or protein, such as a boiled egg, chicken or tofu.
And avoid the doughnuts and soft drinks in the common room.
FMI: You can read the CDC study on the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.