More than 70 percent of those calories came from food that was free.

Share story

ATLANTA — It’s no secret that cupcakes in the break room provide little nutrition. But a new report reveals that many Americans might be overindulging in snacks.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently conducted a study, presented at an American Society for Nutrition meeting, to determine how many unhealthful foods employees consume while on the job.

To do so, they used data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Acquisition and Purchasing Survey, a national questionnaire on food purchases and acquisitions during a seven-day period. The team specifically assessed the foods and beverages bought at work from vending machines or cafeterias or items that were snagged for free from common areas, meetings or worksite social events.

After analyzing the results, they found that nearly a quarter of the participants received food from work at least once a week averaging almost 1,300 calories. More than 70 percent of those calories came from food that was free.

Furthermore, not only were the foods high in calories, they also contained added sugars and high amounts of sodium. They also included very few whole grains and fruit.

“To our knowledge, this is the first national study to look at the food people get at work,” co-author Stephen Onufrak said in statement. “Our results suggest that the foods people get from work do not align well with the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

The researchers are encouraging employers to implement worksite wellness programs to promote healthier eating. They also believe foods in cafeterias or vending machines should follow proper food-service guidelines.

“Since we found that a lot of the foods obtained by employees were free,” Onufrak, “employers may also want to consider healthy meeting policies to encourage healthy food options at meetings and social events.”

The scientists are now hoping to continue their investigations to explore the foods specifically purchased from vending machines and cafeterias at work.

“Worksite wellness programs have the potential to reach millions of working Americans and have been shown to be effective at changing health behaviors among employees, reducing employee absenteeism and reducing health-care costs,” Onufrak said. “We hope that the results of our research will help increase healthy food options at worksites in the U.S.”

Rachel Lustgarten, a registered dietitian with Weill Cornell Medicine, said with people spending more and more time at work, they tend to reach for the foods that are the most accessible to them. But, in general, the snacks stocked in communal refrigerators, pantries or vending machines have little nutritional value. In fact, Lustgarten said, they are highly processed foods that are high in fat, sugar and sodium.

Though these foods and drinks may seem to be a quick fix for a 3 p.m. slump, Lustgarten said the less-than-healthful options mixed with sedentary desk jobs can lead to adverse health conditions, such as unwanted weight gain.