Workplace Foods Contribute to Unhealthful Eating

A study of 5,222 employees across the United States found that the foods people get at work tend to contain high amounts of sodium and refined grains and very little of whole grains and fruit. The results suggest that workplaces can play more of a role to help ensure access to and promote more healthful food options.

"To our knowledge, this is the first national study to look at the food people get at work," says Stephen Onufrak, PhD, an epidemiologist in the division of nutrition, physical activity, and obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Our results suggest that the foods people get from work do not align well with the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans."

Onufrak recently presented results from the new research at the American Society for Nutrition's annual meeting.

The new study used data from the USDA Food Acquisition and Purchasing Survey, a nationally representative household survey on food purchases and acquisitions during a seven-day study period. The researchers analyzed the food or beverages employees purchased at work from vending machines or cafeterias or that were obtained for free in common areas, at meetings, or at worksite social events.

The analysis showed that nearly one-quarter of study participants obtained food from work at least once a week and that the average weekly calories obtained was almost 1,300. The food tended to be high in empty calories—those from solid fats and/or added sugars—with more than 70% of the calories coming from food that was obtained for free.

The researchers say that employers could help their employees eat better at work by using worksite wellness programs to promote healthful options that are also appealing. Employers could also ensure that foods in cafeterias or vending machines follow foodservice guidelines, which translate the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans into practical recommendations.

"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," Onufrak says.

The researchers are now conducting a similar research study using another dataset to examine foods specifically purchased from vending machines and cafeterias in the workplace.

"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," Onufrak says. "We hope that the results of our research will help increase healthy food options at worksites in the US."

— Source: American Society for Nutrition