How to Break Eating Habits at Work

Last year, over 40 percent of American employees gained weight, according to a survey released by CareerBuilder(1a). At work, shifts in diet are not always due to a lack of food knowledge but instead a change in lifestyle. In fact, most employees report gaining weight due to inactivity, stress, eating out and workplace celebrations. But a busy life can also involve these situations, so what makes work so influential?


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    Understand social behavior spread: Behaviors, physical and mental, are social contagions, meaning they spread from one person to the next. This is especially true for social networks like the workplace. For better or worse, this also means that your job can impact your diet. Innate to you is the tendency to imitate others, a trait believed to help us form social groups for security (1). This spread of behaviors may prompt you to mimic food habits and emotions of other employees, causing unintentional weight gain or emotional eating.
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    Mind the eating habits taken home from work: Nutrition habits can also spread past the workplace. Even on a worldwide scale, people can be influenced to eat poorly, as is the case today.
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    Have a best friend with the same goal: At work, this can especially influence your diet. Close friends who adopt healthy habits together, for example, are more likely to maintain them than those who don’t have support. So if you plan to eat well, ask a work friend to join you. On the flip side, a 32 year-long study concluded that "A person's chances of becoming obese increased by 57% (95% confidence interval [CI], 6 to 123) if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval" (2).
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    Aim for a healthy work culture: A company’s culture is also highly influential. For example, managers who support health programs can improve the stress, exercise and eating habits within their companies. If your workplace offers wellness benefits, take advantage of them to support your diet. Your participation can also encourage others to join.
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    Practice mindfulness: Try practicing mindful eating. For example, if you see a donut, pause to ask yourself if you really need it. If it’s too tempting, you can still make other mindful decisions as a tool for eating control (3).
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    Establish new habits: For example, you can agree to eat half a donut because, one, you will eat less, and two, you will start a new habit of self-control. Likewise, you and your friend can take the donuts (or other food item) outside and go for a walk, combining a new exercise routine with a guilty pleasure. Really, there are plenty of ways to learn mindfulness at the office, the point being to practice thought and build new behaviors with food.
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    Eliminate cues you associate with appetite: Cravings are situational, meaning they don’t always follow you everywhere you go. While you may have donuts with coworkers, you might avoid them at home. You can, for example, avoid seeing your coworkers with donuts or other cravings by eating in a separate break room. The trick is to hunt for the cues that spark your unwanted eating. Today, careers that destine you for an early grave tend to pay more, but I would challenge you to make health your number one job. After all, jobs are replaceable — your body is not.


Sources and Citations

  • 1a.
  • 1. Christakis, Nicholas A., and James H. Fowler. "Social Contagion Theory: Examining Dynamic Social Networks and Human behavior." Statistics in Medicine 32.4 (2013): 556-77. Print.
  • 2. Christakis, Nicholas A., and James H. Fowler. "The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years." New England Journal of Medicine 357.4 (2007): 370-79. Print.
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Categories: Work World | Nutrition and Lifestyle Eating