Amy Campbell, CDE, is a registered dietitian and the author of several books about diabetes, including 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet and Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning.

We’ve all experienced it. One colleague brings in homemade chocolate chip cookies. Another keeps a jar of candy on her desk. Someone brings in doughnuts on the weekends. Bagels from morning meetings and leftovers from corporate lunches magically make their way into the kitchen. Someone’s birthday rolls around and out comes a cake. Think you can get away from food by going into work? Think again.

Treacherous choices

I recently read about a study that was published in the journal Food, Culture & Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research. In this study, the researchers examined eating habits in the workplace where “individuals frequently navigate treacherous food choice landscapes during the working day.” They looked at the eating habits of 25 office workers at the University of California, Davis; these workers recorded their food intake and where they consumed it over a 24-hour period. They also self-rated their choices based on goodness and healthfulness.

The findings from the study were interesting, and it was an eye-opener to read about the thought processes and decisions that the office workers made on an almost daily basis. Some of the comments addressed the efforts of the workers to eat healthfully at home and bring a nutritious lunch to work, only to become derailed by tempting goodies at the office. What also came across was the effort to plan ahead for resisting treats, but those good intentions fell by the wayside when they encountered unplanned foods.

Not only did the office workers get off track from their healthful eating, some of them also spent a considerable amount of time and energy contemplating eating the treats, thus likely affecting their productivity—a double whammy.

Watch for that food altar

The next time you arrive at work, notice where your workplace food altar is. Not sure what that is? The authors of the study mentioned above came up with the term “food altar” to describe the place where bagels, cake, cookies, leftovers, etc. congregate. Maybe it’s the kitchen, maybe it’s in a conference room, or a table in the corner, or the candy dish on the admin assistant’s desk. Where your workplace food altar is isn’t really the issue; what’s at stake, though, is the time you spend and the effort you exert making decisions about food. On top of that, if you have diabetes, you might also have to account for the carb grams and perhaps bolus some insulin to cover that treat.

Avoiding performance problems

Chances are you have a good idea, or at least some sense, as to which foods energize you, provide you with the nutrition that you need, and help you keep your blood sugars reasonably within your target range. We’ve all had those days, however, when stress kicks in due to a looming project deadline, an unpleasant encounter with your boss or a coworker, or merely dealing with the never-ending emails in your inbox.

On those days, you may not have time to eat healthfully. Maybe you grab a fast-food meal nearby, or . . . find yourself wandering over to the “food altar” to partake in whatever leftovers are lurking around. Or maybe you skip eating altogether. Those food choices are quick and convenient, but you pay later with sluggishness, upset stomach, and high blood sugars (or lows, in the event that you don’t eat). Healthful eating in the workplace is so important that it has garnered attention from the likes of Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, and The Guardian. Employers are taking notice: unhealthy employees mean more absenteeism and presenteeism, and less productivity.

A solution in sight

Back to the “food altar” article. The researchers stumbled upon a solution to unhealthful office eating: water. We’ve all heard how the water cooler is the gathering place for gossiping in the office. As it turns out, though, that water cooler also provides a host of benefits:

  • Encouraging people to drink more water (and eat fewer goodies)
  • Giving a sense of a “safe haven,” away from the food altar
  • Encouraging movement—meaning, needing to get up from your desk to go to the water cooler

No water cooler where you work? Think about how you can plan for a hydration break. It might be as simple as going to the water dispenser in the fridge in the kitchen to fill your water bottle.

Other options

While the authors of the food altar study zeroed in on water as being a key help to deal with workplace eating, there are other steps you can take to rein in eating and help you better manage your health:

  • Bring your lunch (or your dinner). It requires planning ahead, but you’ll have more control over portions, calories, and carbs, as opposed to running out to buy your meal.
  • Keep healthy, lower-carb snacks at your desk or nearby in the fridge. Nuts, raw veggies, Greek yogurt, cheese sticks, nut butter, edamame, roasted chick peas, and hard-boiled eggs are a few suggestions.
  • Take advantages of breaks to get up and move. Go for a walk or climb stairs. If there are times when you can’t leave your desk, do some desk exercises like these from WebMD.
  • Consider talking with your coworkers and/or your boss about having healthier foods in the workplace.
  • Not everyone will be on board, but chances are others are aiming to eat healthfully, too. Maybe you switch to ordering corporate meals from a caterer that provides more nutritious foods. Or that admin assistant agrees to keep her candy jar in her desk drawer. You can also talk with your human resources rep about ways the work environment can be healthier for everyone.
  • Keep that water bottle handy and in full sight. It’s a great reminder to drink water during the day. And there’s evidence that drinking 16 ounces of water before a meal can help you cut calories and drop some pounds.
  • Practice saying no, politely but firmly, especially when those plates piled with cake get passed around.
  • And if you decide to indulge now and then? Go ahead and enjoy it. Treats aren’t always off-limits. But get back on track at the next snack or mealtime, and make a deal with yourself to fit in some physical activity that day.

Which unhealthy foods are a problem at your job? How do you deal with them? Add a comment to share your advice.