10 Pieces of Unsolicited Advice, From Me, About Fostering Healthier Eating Habits at Work

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Quiz Day, or Tip Day.

This Wednesday: My 10 pieces of unsolicited advice for how to foster healthier eating habits in the workplace

In law school, we took “issue-spotter” exams, which were actually kind of fun (as law-school exams go). An issue-spotter exam presents a long tale of legal woes, and students must spot every issue that arises—the law-school version of a child’s “find the hidden pictures” puzzle.

A while back, I was speaking at a big company, and as I was shown around the corporate campus, I did a mental issue-spotter.

What steps would make it easier for employees to eat more healthfully without even thinking about it? I amused myself by writing an imaginary ten-point memo.

1. At the reception desk, put all the candy in an opaque container with a lid, with a small sign that says “Candy.”

2. Don’t provide “health bars” or “energy bars” that are really candy bars in disguise. (Just because the label says it’s “healthy” doesn’t mean it is healthy.)

3. Put doors on the office kitchens. The slightest big of inconvenience shapes our habits; plus, if we don’t see food cues, we’re less likely to eat.

4. Set up a partition to divide each kitchen in two. Dedicate the section closer to the door to healthy selections; put less-healthy food in the back section, further from the door, so people would have to make a special effort to get there. Ideally, they’d have to pass another partition or cross an actual red line painted on the floor—and they wouldn’t be able to see those tempting foods unless they were in that area.

5. On the posters that promote healthy foods, stop conflating “fruits” and “vegetables.”

6. Don’t put candies and nuts in bins that pour out their contents in a stream. Instead, provide containers that dispense one small serving at a time. Or better, serve those items in small, pre-packaged bags. That helps people monitor how much they’re eating.

7. Hang mirrors near food stations.

8. Offer fewer varieties of unhealthy foods.

9. Provide a tracking system to allow people to note their daily snack intake (voluntary).

10. Don’t provide trays in the cafeteria. Many colleges have eliminated cafeteria trays; when students can’t easily load up on food and must make multiple trips, they take less. One study found that going trayless cut food waste by as much as 25-30 %, and I bet people eat less, too.

If you could offer some unsolicited advice about your workplace — about how to make it healther — what would you say?

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  • I work from home, so I’m not sure about the workplace, but when people come to visit I try to offer variations on “treats” that are a little better than the “norm.” Mostly fresh fruit on the table instead of chips and pretzels, or I make something with at the very least “real” ingredients instead of super processed stuff. I started making Kale chips recently, which is the only way I can get my wife to eat Kale, ha ha. I’m not obsessive about healthy eating (I won’t lie, I eat a package of Oreos nearly once a week) but I figure if I offer reasonably good foods to guests then at least I can possibly help everyone find some balance between the healthy and the delicious-but-terrible. 🙂

    I’ve found just being the one to take the plunge and CUT an orange to put on the table can mean the difference between people eating an orange or eating a bag of chips that’s easier to access.

    • johanna Knaus

      I work out of my home, also, I do not buy or bring any junk food into the house. If I do consume cookies or muffins I have to bake them from scratch, (which I have to admit I do) but so much easier to just say forget it. If my husband brings something home not healthy it goes back in his truck. Boy, am I a meany or what? but a healthy one:)

      • PolarSamovar

        I do this too. Once when my mother-in-law and her sister dropped in unexpectedly, I had no snacks, nothing that could be eaten without being cooked first. Not even sandwich stuff. Finally I found some nuts and raisins, and put them in little bowls on the table.

  • Sandra Pawula

    Brilliant. This is amazing: “The slightest big of inconvenience shapes our habits…”

    I also love the idea of offerings nuts in small servings, they really pack on the calories. I work at home and one of my solutions is not to keep unhealthy food on shelves. Then it really requires extra effort to get it.

  • cruella

    I work in government administration so there is not much splashing out on goodies like candy in the reception or in the kitchen area. Weekly fruit basket and a coffee machine with less than tasty options – but of course I drink the coffee anyway. The cafeteria has trays and a rather good selection of both healthy and not so healthy options, but I only occasionally see people LOAD their trays with sweets. The stuff is rather good quality and therefore expensive so people tend to make a careful choice. I would say that most educated/middle class Swedes are very aware of what is healthy and not so healthy and tend to make natural good choices. Then again, many have a sweet tooth and keep their cupboards stuffed with small treats like biscuits, crisps and sweet drinks that tend to go for light snacks rather than having a sandwich or a smoothie. I watch where my money go so I’m not so keen on spending on such things, but I notice the difference in habits when we share house and expenses with in-laws in the summer. I have to confess that I grumble seeing what I pay for at times;)

  • Agnes

    Your headline says “healthier” but all the tips are about reducing calorie consumption. Not the same thing, and, at best, a small part of being healthy.

    • Agnes

      To elaborate, to really make a healthier workplace you would (in rough order of importance):
      1. Pay a living wage and good benefits, especially health insurance and sick leave.
      2. Good industrial hygiene and environmental health. Make sure safety, exposure, and pollution best practices are followed.
      3. Promote physical activity (workplace that makes movement easy and pleasant, onsite gyms, bike racks, etc.)
      4. Healthy eating might go about here
      5. Policies that foster social relationships, both in the workplace and out (e.g., working hours that allow for family time)

      You might argue, “I didn’t notice any of those things, just eating issues.” And I would ask why eating issues are obvious to you but you don’t notice things more crucial to health, if health is your actual goal.

      • gretchenrubin

        Great points!

        As another reader pointed out, I should’ve squeezed “healthier eating” into the headline (I’ve been trying to write shorter headlines). Didn’t realize that it would be misleading.

    • gretchenrubin

      I just said “healthier” in the title because of space constraints. In the header in the article, where I have enough room, I explain that it’s about fostering healthier eating.

      • Jill Douthett

        Why are we fostering eating in the workplace to begin with? People should be eating in their homes with their families (“Happier at Home”, right?) or taking a much needed break in the middle of their work days. The fully catered workplace of the “high” tech companies is just employer manipulation (not to mention a blatant tax dodge).

        • phoenix1920

          For me, in order to leave work at a decent time and eat dinner at home with my family, I don’t have time to go out to eat lunch (and eating out encourages too many calories and is expensive). I eat lunch at my desk while scanning quickly news or blogs.

          • Jill Douthett

            Precisely my point. “[T]o leave work at a decent time . . . I don’t have time to [eat lunch except at my desk while doing other things].” Something’s amiss with the way your employer has structured your workday.

          • Linda

            Many of us have only a half hour for lunch. I am a teacher, and though I live only a couple of miles from work, by the time I went home, ate, and came back I would have at best maybe 15 minutes to actually gulp down some food. When I worked in surgery, we could not leave in case there was an emergency. There are a lot of work situations that prevent people from going home for lunch, even though that would be ideal.

  • skepticalcyclist

    Ooh! I work for a company that does a great job of encouraging healthy eating. We don’t have lots of workplace perks, but they have this one down. 1. There are bountiful bowls of free organic fruit (including veggie-fruits such as tomatoes and avocados) scattered around the office. 2. The vending machine with healthier snacks (yogurt, seaweed snacks, milk, almonds) costs 25 cents!! The vending machines with sodas and candy cost the normal amount. We also get unlimited coffee and tea, but all the sweeteners and creamers are kept in cupboards. There’s also an ice machine, which seems to encourage people to drink a lot more water. My eating has improved 8,000% (give or take) since I started working there.

  • Bean

    Not food-related but a current pet peeve of mine in new buildings: staircases that are inconvenient. Older buildings tend to have attractive staircases that are an architectural feature and they are positioned so that you naturally choose the staircase as you come in. But new construction has done away with all that, the foyer leads directly to the elevator waiting area, and that “user interface” affects people’s choices. In a 3 or 4-story, walk-up type, publicly-accessible building (mall, library, university, offices or government building), if the staircase is the slightest bit attractive, and also positioned front and centre when you walk in, it will be used by people who are able to. (And it shouldn’t be hidden behind a door in a windowless, artificially-lit shaft – your hands may be full, or you are with a group of people who then all have to negotiate the door and narrow, echo-y stairs while still chatting.) I have worked in buildings with both types of staircases. People who are able to will take the stairs if you make it easy and attractive, and they will take the elevator if that’s the first thing they see and the stairs are hard to find and only labelled by the fire-code required EXIT sign. (Of course, there needs to be a conveniently-located and easily accessible elevator for those who can’t use the stairs – but most people could, and don’t.)

    • Gillian

      I completely agree. A bright open staircase is also much safer. I often skip the dark dingy staircases when I am alone because they feel very unsafe.

    • NJ Darling

      Yes, I’m always afraid to go in those closed door staircases. Too many movies with violent acts in the stairwell.

    • Agnes

      The closed door thing is partly a fire code issue.

  • Jeanne

    I don’t work in an office anymore, but if I did, I would ask about putting up a bulletin board in the lunch and/or break room. People could post their own ideas about healthier eating and their favorite healthier recipes, as well as lifestyle ideas on exercise and relaxation techniques. People could ask about lining up walking buddies on break or any other time. Could be a good way to help people to connect inside and outside of work around something other than pizza and pitchers of beer.

  • Lynn

    Your list is interesting. Having worked in offices for many years, I see the issue of how to be healthy at work one where we pit the physical and cultural realities against what is actually better for us. Eating healthier usually requires us to bring in a lunch and snacks from home. If you take time to make healthy dinners and then take in the left overs, it’s easier. I think many folks I have worked with over the years are so tired after being away from home for 11 – 13 hours (work time + commute time) just don’t have the energy or interest in doing that.

    To change our eating habits we need to understand what causes them:

    – Most people working in offices are sitting at their desks for 8+ hours a day at a computer. Our bodies need to move and go outside, but you can’t do much of that if you are getting your work done.

    – Most folks that I’ve worked with don’t go for a lunch away from the office more than once a week. Sometimes folks just eat the bad food on site because it’s easy, fast and free. Work days are long, and spending an hour away from the desk means less time for family and friends in the few hours away from work.

    – Candy bowls offer two rewards for us office dwellers. First, you get a quick smile and chat with the person who hosts them. Secondly, it’s also a sweet reward for getting things done. Also, since it’s a quick 3-5 minute jaunt, it isn’t really seen as goofing off by anyone.

    – Many folks who work in an office face long work days and have long commutes. Some folks drink coffee or tea, some eat candy, but most do something to get them through traffic chaos and back home.

  • Theresa

    I find it interesting you give advice about “healthier” eating habits for your office but you don’t work in an office setting and are not a health professional. Please keep your posts to your expertise which is not a group work setting or healthy eating.

    • gretchenrubin

      I was taken on a tour of a big corporate campus, which is where I saw all these things – and talked to the people. I asked, “Do people gain weight when they starting working here?” they said, “Oh yeah, we all joke about it.”
      I’ve spent many a year working in offices! I started out my career in law.
      Would a health professional disagree with any of these? It’s pretty standard thinking.

      • MicheleKH

        Theresa, I believe this is Gretchen’s blog, hence Gretchen’s opinion. I don’t believe she is stating this is what you “MUST” do to be healthy. These are simply suggested ideas. Relax a bit…

    • ChrisD

      This post reminds of Thank you for smoking, when the Tobacco lobbyist was visiting his son’s school and a girl said ‘my mommy says smoking is bad’. That was his exact response. ‘Is your mother a health care professional? A doctor?’ She wasn’t so obviously her opinion on smoking was irrelevant.

  • Felicity

    This post makes me want to go out and mutinously eat a truck load of chocolate bars! (And I’m an obliger, not a rebel!) Clearly, my diet is not going so well!

  • jenny_o

    So many of these are things I’ve figured out through experience and are bang on. When the candy bowl is full at work, I can only resist temptation so long. If it’s empty, I don’t miss the candy. The same principle apply to other nutritionally empty foods. I’m also interested in your comment on “fruits and vegetables” versus “fruits” and “vegetables”. I never thought about it before, but it’s true – I don’t care for fruits, but love vegetables … but still tend to think only about fruits when I see the catchall phrase, so it’s not a helpful reminder for me.

  • phoenix1920

    I’ve never had an issue with eating healthy at work. I bring in a frozen dinner with a bowl of veggies and drink diet drinks. (I realize some may think Lean Cuisines and diet sodas or Mio are not healthy.) Yet my weight keeps increasing slowly and steadily.

    To me, the problem that causes so much weight gain at the workplace is the lack of physical activity. My husband just moved from the classroom, where he was on his feet all day, to the district office to help on a 3 year project where he is chained to a computer. He eats the same, but has gained over 15 pounds in one year.

    • jenny_o

      Lack of physical activity is a big problem, yes, and it’s true that we can gain weight while eating healthily – but think of how much MORE we would gain if we were eating candy and snacks on top of those healthy meals. And that is exactly what many office workers do, simply because those snacks/meals/candy/baked goods are so readily available.

      • ChrisD

        Physical activity is not that relevant to weight. If your exercise more your appetite will go up. Our amount of fat is determined by our insulin levels. Eat less carbs and your weight will come down. However, exercise can protect you from the effects of a bad/carby diet by using up the blood sugar quicker. It’s easier to reduce carbs.

        • phoenix1920

          Speaking only from my experience, it isn’t always the case that exercise increases appetite. I used to have a job where I was constantly running and often forgot to eat. My dh’s diet and appetite stayed the same even though he used to get more exercise naturally at work. Perhaps it’s different if you are talking extreme exercise, like the college football program.

    • Gillian

      You’re absolutely right about the lack of activity. I never really fully believed that in the past but last year I went on a one-month vacation. With all the extra food I ate, I should have gained 5-10 pounds but I gained nothing. The reason was the constant gentle activity – wandering around castles and gardens, walking along beaches and doing some gentle hikes. None of it was strenuous but it was quite a lot every day. I don’t think the activity burned off the calories as such; the constancy of it kept the metabolism cranking.

      As for the Lean Cuisine and diet sodas – I don’t think you are doing yourself any favours there. All packaged foods are full of stuff you shouldn’t eat. They replace the fat with something else – usually sodium or sugar to make the food taste good and they are often lacking in serious nutrition. And we now know that fat is not bad for us – see Gretchen’s next post. Diet sodas are a crime – the artificial sweeteners do bad things to the body. You should perhaps try replacing them with water or tea then, if you really enjoy drinking a soda, have one regular one as a treat once in a while.

    • Alice

      Your gaining weight is probably due to eating Lean Cuisines and drinking diet soda everyday. Lean Cuisines are very processed, and they have a LOT of salt and other fake stuff in them. The more processed food you eat, the more weight you gain. Also, diet sodas are terrible for you. The sugar-substitutes and all the other chemicals in them are probably more fattening than the sugar in regular sodas. If you want to lose weight, eat REAL food that you make yourself and cut out sodas entirely. I hate cooking myself, so I make the simplest things possible – chicken breasts or fish that I throw in the oven, and frozen vegetables (there are no additives in the frozen vegetables), and I bring leftovers for lunch the next day. I also got a rice cooker, and I eat rice with almost everything. If you think you can’t live without soda, you’re probably addicted. Try going without it for a few days and drinking herbal tea or water instead, and you’ll stop craving it.

  • Phyllis

    Where may I obtain a list of your favorite children’s lit? YOu mentioned in a recent blog one of your favorites, that always lifts your spirits, but I’ve forgotten the author/title. I also asked this on your FB page. Is such a list available? HOpe so.

  • ChrisD

    At our office in London we don’t get ANY food. Tea, coffee, milk, yes. The only food in the kitchen is what we bring in for lunch. In these circumstances quite a lot of these suggestions don’t apply. It’s interesting how work practises are different in different countries/types of office. For example we have two sandwich shops and a supermarket within a five minute walk for lunch and everyone HAS to be out by ~6.30-7.00 in the evening so no need for vending machines.

  • Brenda_Lee_Nelson

    Hi Gretchen,
    I am on the Wellness Committee at my work. Two of the bigger changes that we implemented in the past year:
    -Replace the candy dish with fresh fruit
    -Give all employees the opportunity to earn HSA dollars by completing healthy activities (such as running/walking a 5k or watching a video on stress reduction)

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