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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Column: Office cravings

If college has affected your nutrition, you might be wondering what will happen on a full-time job. Last year, over 40 percent of American employees gained weight, many of whom suffer a diet-related chronic disease.

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? The answer may lie in the coworkers around you.

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.

Let’s say your boss brings a box of donuts to lunch. Your fellow employees flock to the box, while you convince yourself to eat carrots with your desk buddy, Ron. No one says a word, but body language affirms that you two look different. Feeling left out, you pick up a donut. Then, Ron takes one to fit in with you. Neither of you intended to have a donut, but it happened.

This is because innate to you is the ability to imitate others, a trait believed to help us form social groups for security. There is no hungry lion, but mild threats, like rejection from coworkers, may prompt you to mimic their food habits and emotions, causing unintentional weight gain and emotional eating.

Nutrition habits can also spread past the workplace. Your spouse, for example, may hear about the party and tell a neighbor, who then buys donuts for his or her kids. Even on a worldwide scale, people can be influenced to eat poorly, as is the case today. Good habits spread, too, but what do you do when they are not?

Having a best friend at work 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, if they become obese, your chance of becoming obese can increase by 170 percent.

Friend or no, a company’s culture is also highly influential, as shown with the donut scene. Likewise, managers who support health programs can improve the stress, exercise and eating habits within their companies. So if your workplace offers wellness benefits, take advantage of them to support your diet. It can also encourage others to join.

Still, less than half of employees feel their company does enough to promote health. So if nutritious food isn’t the norm, 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.

Establishing new habits for your self is one way. 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 Ron can take the donuts 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.

Eliminating cues you associate with appetite is also effective because cravings are situational, meaning they don’t follow you everywhere you go. While you may have donuts with coworkers, you might avoid them at home. You and Ron, then, can avoid seeing your coworkers with the donuts by eating in a separate break room. The trick is to hunt for these cues that spark your unwanted eating.

By nature, remember that you are a creature of conformity and habit. This knowledge may be unsettling, but it is also your best tool for breaking old behaviors. 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.

THERESA RICHARDSON posts all of her sources and articles on Facebook. Just google The Freshman Fifteen and her e-mail, terichardson@ucdavis.edu.

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