All That Free Office Food Is Putting Your Health at Risk

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You're paying for it in a different way.

When pizza, sandwiches, and baked goods are handed out for free at work, it may seem like a windfall. After all, who doesn't love free food? But you might want to think twice before accepting it.

A new study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has found that U.S. office workers take in, on average, an extra 1,291 calories per week from food consumed at work. Two-thirds of that comes from food obtained for free.

The study found that the 10 most commonly obtained foods in office settings are coffee, regular and diet soft drinks, sandwiches, tap water, tea, cookies or brownies, lettuce salad, French fries, and potato chips.

"These 10 foods accounted for 44 percent of the foods obtained at work. Additional foods also included among the most commonly purchased foods were tortilla and other chips, candy containing chocolate, and crackers. The most common foods acquired for free also included chicken."

When this office-sourced food was analyzed using a metric developed by the United States Department of Agriculture to measure nutritional quality on a scale of one to 100, the workplace fare scored an average of 48. The New Food Economy pointed out, "That’s the same score as a Wendy’s menu."

It's a known fact that when people are away from home their dietary choices tend to deteriorate in terms of nutritional value. They opt for more sugar and refined carbohydrates, with fewer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. But these choices are shaped by what's available in the workplace. If employers prioritized offering healthier food, they could potentially offset health care costs and improve quality of life and performance of workers. Study author Stephen Onufrak said,

"Employers can offer appealing and healthy options in cafeterias, vending machines, and at meetings and social events. One way to do this is by incorporating food service guidelines and healthy meeting policies into worksite wellness efforts."

Until workplaces start offering amazing salad bars in place of vending machines, the responsibility lies on individuals' own shoulders to assess the true cost of eating whatever is up for grabs. So, the next time pizza's going around for a third time that week, remind yourself that it still comes at a price – that of your healthy – and ask whether that's worth paying.