Extra cake from your coworker’s kid’s birthday party. Leftover bagel halves from the morning meeting. If you work in an office, you’ve surely seen how random treats magically appear in the break room or on the free table — and then get quickly devoured, regardless of what they are or where they came from.
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Free food has a way of luring you in when you’re not the least bit hungry. And while an occasional indulgence is no problem, habitually visiting the free table can add up to a lot of extra calories and take a toll on your health.
Why we eat free food when we’re not even hungry
You’re not even a “sweets person,” yet here you are in the office kitchen at 3 p.m. mulling over a box of half-stale donuts. What gives?
“We love anything that’s free or feels like a good deal, and when it’s in a work environment, it can feel like an extra perk, especially if you are feeling underappreciated in any way,” explains psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD.
Plus, many people turn to food for comfort when they’re stressed or bored — either of which you might be feeling at any given moment of your workday. So if there’s something (read: donuts) readily available to soothe you, it’s easy to see how that box disappears so fast.
“Free food is very low risk: It’s already there, it costs you nothing and if you don’t like it, you can just throw it out,” Dr. Albers adds.
Then there’s the social element of eating at the office. Studies show that our eating habits are influenced by those of the people around us — such as other colleagues who also enjoy free food.
“Social eating can be very contagious,” she says.
The problem with free food
An occasional indulgence at the office is nothing to feel guilty about. But getting into the habit of taking free food whenever it’s there can derail your healthy eating intentions and leave you dragging through the rest of your workday.
One CDC survey found that foods up for grabs at the office are often high in empty calories from refined grains, solid fats and added sugars. In other words, it’s usually not salad and whole grain muffins you’re snatching up to fuel you through your workday.
“Sugar in particular has a huge impact on our brain and our mood,” Dr. Albers notes. Research has shown that sugar can make us more tired and less focused later in the day. It also contributes to weight gain in the long-term and can up your risk for heart disease and other health conditions.
Curb your mindless workday munchies
The easiest way to avoid the temptation of free treats is to keep them out of sight.
“You could not even be thinking about donuts and then you walk into the office break room and suddenly it’s all you can think about,” Dr. Albers relates. “Just seeing the food is a huge trigger for people.”
If you have any control over where the free food goes, choose a place that’s a little out of the way of regular foot traffic. “Putting it out of sight or where people have to work a little bit to go get it will cut down on mindless eating,” Dr. Albers says.
If that’s out of your control, though, Dr. Albers recommends these tactics:
- Stock some protein in your desk drawer. Keeping healthy, satisfying snacks handy may prevent you from wandering into the break room when you’re jonesing for an afternoon snack. “We do tend to have afternoon energy slump; that’s when we’re most vulnerable to cravings,” Dr. Albers says. She recommends almonds, meat sticks, roasted chickpea snacks or protein bars to help you feel full.
- Check in with your emotions. Are you actually going for the free food because you’re hungry, or is it because you’re stressed, bored or procrastinating? Before you dig in, stop and ask yourself, “What’s my motivation?” If you’re eating because of an emotion rather than hunger, Dr. Albers recommends distracting yourself for five minutes to see if the craving passes, or finding a way to self-soothe without food.
- If you take the food, sit down and enjoy it. If you wolf down that sandwich while running to a meeting, you’re probably not really tasting or enjoying it. Studies show we tend to eat more when we’re distracted — both in the moment and later in the day — so minimize the damage by taking your time and savoring what you’re eating.