Workplaces across America provide their employees with foods high in salt and refined grains and low in whole grains and fruit, according to research presented Monday at the American Society for Nutrition annual meeting.
The study, conducted by researchers from the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at more than 5,000 employees across the United States. The researchers analyzed the food or beverages purchased from vending machines or cafeterias at work, and the free food in common areas.
Some of the most commonly obtained foods included beverages like coffee and regular soft drinks, which are large sources of added sugar, sandwiches, water, tea, diet drinks, and the list rounds out with cookies and brownies, said Stephen Onufrak, an epidemiologist at the CDC.
"We have salad, French fries and pizza ... among that list, there weren't a lot of nutrient-dense foods," Onufrak said.
That all adds up -- almost a quarter of the study participants consumed almost 1,300 calories per week. Approximately 70% of those calories were from free food in common areas, during meetings or at work-related social events, according to analysis of the data from a household survey of food purchases and acquisitions.
Onufrak presented the results of the study at an annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition in Boston.
"Unfortunately, the diets of Americans in general is not really consistent with the recommendations from the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans. We're eating more meat than recommended, more refined grains," said Angela Amico, a policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest who was not involved with the study. "Americans are not consuming enough fruits, vegetables, and dairy and it can be challenging to meet those guidelines when you have a food environment that doesn't support it."
When employees spend more than half of their waking hours in the workplace, they are pushed to pick unhealthy foods and the empty calories quickly add up, Amico noted.
"While work foods aren't really necessarily a huge source of calories overall in people's diets, I think they are still a significant source," Onufrak said. "If you look at the quality of the foods people got, it definitely did not necessarily adhere to the dietary guidelines very closely."
One solution suggested by the study authors: Employers could promote "worksite wellness" programs to encourage healthy eating and include food options that follow federal recommendations in vending machines and cafeterias.
For example, the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, a coalition managed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, suggests a "healthy meeting" pledge
that calls for healthier options at work. That might mean water as the primary beverage instead of soda and offering fruit as dessert, Amico said.
"Along with just offering those foods, they can promote them, make them attractive, delicious, priced competitively with less healthy foods, highlight them on menus, and put them in a prominent place," Onufrak said.