Chow Line: That Free Food at Work May Significantly Increase Your Caloric Intake

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I’ve noticed that I’ve gained a few extra pounds in the past couple of months. The only things I can think of are the doughnuts and other snacks my coworkers bring to the office. Can those calories really add up that much?

They sure can.

The next time you reach for that pizza, candy, cookie, doughnut, bagel, cake or other rich, sugary goodies your coworker brought in to the break room or conference room for an office treat, be aware that it may be causing a significant increase in the calories you eat.

That’s according to a new study that analyzed data from the U. S. Department of Agriculture Food Acquisition and Purchasing Survey. The survey shows that the foods and beverages many folks get at work are mostly high in sugar and solid fats, resulting in empty calories.

The study focused on 5,222 employees nationwide and found that the delectables people get at work tend to contain high amounts of refined sodium and refined grains, with very little whole grains and fruit.

In the study, 22 percent of the participants got food from work at least once a week, averaging some 1,277 calories a week. And most of those calories, 71 percent, were obtained from the freebies coworkers brought in and placed in common areas, at meetings or at workplace social events.

In fact, of the food sources included in the study of what many employees are feasting on at work – such as vending machines or cafeterias or in common areas, at meetings or at worksite social events – 17 percent of it was free.

“People don’t think that a cookie, bagel or other treat each day is a big deal, but it adds up to an extra day’s worth of calories each week,” said Jenny Lobb, a Family and Consumer Sciences educator for Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University (CFAES).

“A break room full of sweet treats can quickly sabotage the best diet-related intentions,” she said. “However, a break room free of unhealthy food choices can support physical health while also promoting socialization and collaboration among coworkers.”

To cut down on some of those work-food extra calories, Lobb offers the following workplace tips:

  • Make sure that drinking water and cups are freely available via a water cooler, drinking fountain or refrigerated filtered water pitcher.
  • Provide access to a refrigerator and microwave so coworkers can safely store and prepare healthy lunches from home.
  • Celebrate special occasions, such as birthdays, with fruit instead of cake.
  • Use a potluck sign-up sheet for office gatherings where food will be served.
  • Get rid of candy dishes. Replace them with bowls of fruit, if desired.
  • Create a healthy snack cabinet.
  • Establish a “no dumping” policy to discourage coworkers from bringing cakes, cookies or other desserts from home.

You can also encourage your director or CEO to sign a healthy meeting pledge to demonstrate your organization’s commitment to supporting a culture of health in the workplace.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Jenny Lobb, Family and Consumer Sciences educator for Ohio State University Extension.

Tracy Turner
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Jenny Lobb
Family and Consumer Sciences