Confession time: Even though I eat a (mostly) healthy diet at home, I often find myself mindlessly drifting from M&M to Cheeto and back during a stressful day at work.
Snacks have become such a common office perk that one recent survey from Jobvite found millennial workers were more likely to get free food at work than they were to receive health care or retirement plans.
In our office, we have bagel Wednesdays, guacamole Thursdays and occasional pizza Fridays on top of the day-to-day snacks that fill our multiple snack drawers.
Just having those snacks available — and visible — could be the problem. Add in stress, multitasking, boredom and procrastination, and you have a perfect storm of office snackery.
“Oftentimes hunger is less about legitimate hunger and more about decisions based on psychological influences like stress, boredom, impulse, happiness and fatigue,” says nutritionist Keri Glassman. “When food is easily accessible, and also free, we are more likely to reach for it, and continue to overeat.”
Problem 1: Location, Location, Location
In one frequently cited study, researchers at the Cornell Food & Brand Lab gave secretaries containers of Hershey’s kisses and recorded how many they ate. When the candies were on the secretaries’ desks, they ate 48 percent more than they did if they were placed 2 meters away.
When the containers were see-through instead of opaque, they ate about 2 extra kisses per day.
So reducing snacking might be as easy as changing where and how the snacks are displayed. Google set out to hack its snacking problem with help from researchers from the Yale Center for Customer Insights. First, they targeted their most popular snack item: bulk M&Ms. Google had been giving them out self-serve in 4 oz cups. Switching to individual snack packets reduced the average serving by 58 percent, from 308 calories to 130.
Then they hid the M&Ms in opaque containers, while using glass jars to display healthier snacks like dried fruit and nuts. They found that in the New York office alone, employees ate 3.1 million fewer calories from M&Ms over seven weeks – equivalent to nine regular-sized packages of M&Ms for each of the office’s 2,000 workers.
Then they prominently displayed bottled water at eye level behind clear glass, and hid sugary sodas down below behind foggy glass. That helped water consumption rise 47 percent while sugary drinks dropped 7 percent.
And as with secretaries and chocolates, the Google study found location mattered. One drink station was 6.5 feet from the snack bar; the other was 17.5 feet from the snack bar. The researchers found that people who used the beverage station closer to the snacks were 50 percent more likely to grab a snack with their drink. For men, the researchers said that would add up to about a pound of fat per year for each daily cup of coffee.
Problem 2: It’s FREE!
Next, we must acknowledge that special frenzy that happens around free food. Anyone who’s been near a Costco sample table understands this phenomenon.
Journalists know this especially well: We will volunteer for all kinds of ungodly shifts and Election Night duties if there is pizza involved.
But why is free food so tempting? We’re usually talking about a $1 snack pack here, not champagne and truffles. In other words, you’re not saving that much money.
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But not having to pay for something removes one barrier to eating it, says Traci Mann, a University of Minnesota psychology professor and author of “Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again.”
Another factor: Nabbing those extra snacks might make you feel better if you think you don’t get paid enough, says Dr. Susan Albers, clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of the New York Times best-selling “Eat Q: Unlock the Weight-Loss Power of Emotional Intelligence.”
“Before you reach for the free snack, ask yourself why you are taking it,” says Albers, “If you don’t love it, leave it is my motto.”
Problem 3: You’re a Mess
Sitting at your desk for long stretches, you’re likely to encounter a range of emotions that could trigger snacking. Stress. Boredom. Procrastination.
In a 2012 study published in Health Psychology, students were more likely to cite boredom as a reason for eating than any other emotion. Work burnout is another significant trigger for emotional eating.
And because eating feels purposeful, it can be “a rock solid way” to avoid a task you’re dreading, Albers says. There’s even a special term for this: Procrastin-eating.
Grabbing a snack may even be a sneaky way to socialize if you’re feeling isolated or lonely. Earlier this year, the Washington Post conducted its own informal study of the office candy jar and found that people felt compelled to comment as they took the candy – even if they were saying they shouldn’t eat it, or that the candy wasn’t very good. They called this “The Kevin effect,” for the guy who had the candy jar on his desk.
A correlary to the Kevin effect: People are less likely to eat the candy if it’s on the boss’ desk.
Problem 4: You’re Multitasking
I assume most office snacks are consumed the way I eat them: Shamefully, while staring straight ahead and spreading Cheeto dust across the keyboard.
Eating at your desk is among the worse things you can do for your diet. It’s the opposite of mindful eating.
A 2001 study of French women found that those who were distracted by a detective story ate 15 percent more. And women in particular are more likely to eat while using digital devices, according to a 2014 survey of global snack habits by the Nielsen organization.
“Many people can relate to the experience of watching TV or working at their desk and suddenly realizing they ate a whole bag of chips, without even really noticing doing it,” Mann says.
Albers says her best advice is to avoid eating at your desk: “If you are going to have a snack, that is fine, just move to a different location. Or, swivel away from your desk. This will ensure that you don’t mindlessly much in front of your screen.”
Glassman has even suggested leaving empty wrappers on your desk as a reminder of just how much you’ve eaten.
And the Solution?
Here’s the good news: Your office snacking problem isn’t a problem with your willpower, at least not entirely.
“It is very difficult to use willpower to resist tempting food,” Mann says. “But putting obstacles between oneself and food does help slow us down.”
The best solution, of course, is nixing the candy jar. People who keep candy at their desks weigh 15.4 pounds more than people who don’t, according to Cornell’s Brian Wansink.
Learn from the Google team and keep healthier snacks and water at hand. Chewing gum can help in a pinch. Or if you’re feeling bored, stressed or lonely — try taking a walk with a colleague.
“The first step is realizing that this might be a struggle for you. Once you become aware of the fact that the placement of a free snack jar might be a detriment to your healthy decisions, find a replacement,” Glassman suggests. “Every time you are tempted to reach into the candy jar, take a sip of water instead or make yourself a cup of tea.”
Assuming you’re a regular office drone who can’t control the candy availability, our experts say you should do your best to look away. Or fill the jar with a candy you don’t like, if there is such a thing.
“I personally would have no trouble resisting Junior Mints, even if they were right on my desk in front of my face,” Mann says. “Or baby carrots. Just fill your candy dish with baby carrots. Then you have nothing to worry about.”