Trends with food at work — review with Registered Dietitian

Food in the Workplace Data Infographic

Infographic and feature story by Patricia Bouweraerts

Between the sprinkled donuts welcoming employees in the reception area, to the box of creamy milk chocolate truffles in the break room sent by a grateful vendor and a frosted sheet cake to celebrate the account exec’s birthday, it’s a lot of work just to sustain enough strength of will to resist even one of the sugary bonuses.

Further, some companies are offering free snacks as perks.

Current and new food and drink practices at work include gift cards to delis for thanking high-performing employees, bringing in chefs to prepare local cuisine for lunch, providing beer taps ever-flowing at the lunchroom fridge, and … the offer of financial rewards for staff members to join weight loss programs.

Do these add to camaraderie and positive workplace culture, or do some of the practices introduce dietary challenges for working people?

Also, most often managers and team leads are more in charge of deciding what part food will play in the company’s culture than a dietitian.

A Registered Dietitian (RD), Lorraine Mericle, shares some insights about food and drink trends in the workplace.

Beer spigots by the water cooler

To start, beer — a more beer-friendly workplace is described by Emily E. Steck on

“Our perceptions of office-drinking culture have shifted in the last few years,” wrote Steck. “For many companies — often startups and agency-like firms — drinking on the job is now considered a perk. Bloomberg’s Businessweek reports that Yelp’s headquarters in San Francisco is equipped with ‘a keg refrigerator’ that ‘supplies its employees with an endless supply of beer.’ At the Arnold Worldwide Ad agency in Boston, look no further than the office’s beer vending machine, affectionately called ‘Arnie.’”

Arizona-based Mericle is a Millennial, and not against a good pint of microbrew now and then. But about beer in the office, she expresses a definite unenthusiastic view based on her knowledge and training.

“I’m sorry to say this, but beer has no nutritional merits,” she said. “As far as the amount of calories per gram, alcohol on its own has almost as many calories per gram as fat.”

If employees drink a beer at noon to further camaraderie, they may be hungry for a snack later in the afternoon.

“Fat at least has the satiety factor that when consumed and metabolized, you will feel more full after eating a fatty meal,” she said. “With beer, you might feel a little bloated, but in my experience, this feeling does not stop people from drinking a lot of beer; especially when promised an ‘endless supply.’ Beer is also higher in carbohydrates, which when metabolized, breaks down into sugar.”

So, for beer at work, Mericle gives it a “thumbs down.”

“Beer is simply what we call ‘empty calories,’” she said. “Drinking beer doesn’t promote health and is not providing any form of nutrition to the drinker; and ‘beer bellies’ aren’t a coincidence or a misnomer for a reason.”

Are cakes created equal?

There are frozen, boxed birthday cakes, grocery store sheet cakes, bakery layer cakes, and home-made carrot cakes with cream cheese frosting. Occasions for cake can include more than birthdays — celebrating promotions and retirements, wedding showers and holiday receptions.

“There are substitutions that can make baked goods ‘healthier;’ for instance incorporating fruit verses refined simple sugar is a better option — for example, dates are a good substitute for sweetness — and staying away from bakery cakes with hydrogenated oils (trans fats) is preferable,” Mericle said. “In some instances, a healthier fat such as avocado may be able to be substituted for a less healthier fat in a baked good.”

Mericle paused and then clarified why she’s not totally “thumbs down” on cake.

“Personally, I wouldn’t really want to eat a cake that was trying to be ‘healthy,’” she added. “The best solution to cut back extra calories and added sugar is to just eat a smaller portion of that delicious piece of birthday cake. In this scenario, I would recommend portion control and discipline as opposed to trying to make a case for a ‘healthy cake.’”

The lunchroom chef

How about some fresh and local cuisine at lunch?

“Forget the old lunch hour,” wrote Kristen Bradley in her discussion with Katie Boova, marketing manager at Watchdog Real Estate Project Managers, on “Why not bring in the best local restaurants to set up shop at the office building itself, preparing excellent made-to-order meals? What employee wouldn’t look forward to coming into work every day if it meant trying out new dishes from the menus of the area’s best restaurants?”

Mericle was generally positive about this creative lunch perk.

“I look at this trend as more of a pro, depending on the restaurants,” she said. “For the workers who don’t bring their lunch from home, this could be a healthier alternative. If there are only fast food restaurants or vending machines around a workplace, and the employees have access to quick restaurant quality food options, I see this as a success.”

She said that it’s a question of individually-prepared ingredients versus processed food.

“This could provide employees a wider variety of food options, and if the meals are made fresh to order, they are likely minimally processed, which is a better choice than anything found in a vending machine or a fast food restaurant,” she said. “As long as the restaurants offer reasonably healthy options, providing busy employees with an alternative to processed foods seems like a healthy option for lunch.”

Incentives to lose weight

On a contrasting topic related to food and the workplace, one trending practice involves monetary incentives to join diet programs that are a part of wellness initiatives.

Marlene Y. Satter wrote on that employers are tending more and more to focus on their staff members’ well-being in the future — informing them about health care, it’s costs, and preparing to spend less money on medical care in retirement.

“How are they doing that?,” she wrote. “In part by educating workers on the value of health savings accounts (HSAs) and offering financial incentives for participation in wellness programs (weight loss, smoking cessations, etc.).”

Mericle said this may be a quick fix, perhaps not truly meaningful for real gains in health.

“Financial incentives may work in the short-term, but in my experience, it is not financial gain that promotes a lifestyle change,” Mericle said. “In talking with patients about diet, I never recommend making huge changes at once, but rather making small changes and setting goals to eventually change bad habits. Anyone can lose weight; the hard part is keeping if off and continuing to make healthy lifestyle choices. The idea of financial incentives seems to me to be a short-term solution, just like a fad diet. What happens when the program is over, and the incentive for the weight loss is removed?”

She said that real and permanent weight loss comes from intrinsic, or internal motivation.

“I believe that incentives only work in the long run when they come from a personal standpoint; for example, wanting to be healthier to live longer and spend more time with loved ones,” she said.

There could result a long-term benefit, though, if the weight-loss program inspires those who participate.

“If financial motivation is the first step to getting employees motivated and starting to think about living a healthier lifestyle, I think that could be a beneficial stepping stone and could lead to the employee being more informed and at least thinking about making changes.”

Alternatives, and summing up

Other alternatives may also be explored, such as a cooler with iced lemon and mint water. Or, perhaps fruit options to replace the sugary treats.

Dana Wilkie wrote on that a recent LinkedIn discussion brought up several alternatives to substitute for individual birthday parties. One alternative to celebrating all birthdays at work may be to host a monthly celebration that recognizes all who were born in that month, she wrote. Other ideas included a $5 gift card for a sub sandwich or for a meal in the company cafeteria.

From Mericle’s standpoint, the overall objective with food and diet at work is simply to think pragmatically. Her advice is to cut the pieces of a celebratory birthday cake into smaller pieces, to go ahead and hire those local chefs to prepare fresh fare once in a while — budget-permitting — and to offer healthy food and diet practices that may turn into long term positive routines.

Also, a basket of local produce now and then has the potential to be viewed as a much-appreciated bonus.

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1 comment

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