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The Dangers of Workplace Snackage

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It’s one of those things that just kind of happens.

Maybe someone in your department is getting married, or it’s someone’s birthday, and one of your coworkers decides to commemorate the day with treats. Maybe they leave those treats sitting out in the open, where anybody can walk by and grab one.

Maybe you do that three times before you finally stop yourself.

With more than two-thirds of adults in the United States considered to be overweight or obese, it’s clear that we have a bit of a problem with moderation. It’s especially tough to contain yourself when you work in an office, where the surroundings can get a little mundane and the afternoons can kinda drag. You’ll tell yourself you just need a mid-afternoon jolt of sugar, and suddenly you’re pounding your second slice of banana bread. Or a muffin from the downstairs coffee shop. Or maybe something from the vending machine.

It’s already bad enough that we spend most of our day sitting at a desk, though many offices (including our own) are offering options to avoid that sort of thing. Snacking on top of that just makes things that much worse—especially when you aren’t fully aware of the impact these little trinkets of sugary goodness could have on your daily nutritional intake.

For example: Earlier in the day, a coworker brought in cookies from Insomnia Cookies. If you haven’t been fortunate enough to try Insomnia’s cookies, just picture a cookie so tasty that if you placed it on top of your head, your tongue would climb your face to get to it.

Say you grabbed two of those cookies. That’s roughly 500 calories you just pounded in two minutes. That’s somewhere between a quarter and a sixth of what you need in a given day! (Big ups to Insomnia for making their nutritional information so readily available, by the way).

In a study published earlier this year, Penn Medicine researchers found that ordering your meals about an hour before you’re actually going to eat helps keep calorie counts down. The idea is that when you’re acting impulsively (like, say, because of hunger), you make poorer decisions. Is there anything more impulsive than the choice to stop by the community box of chocolates on your way back from the printer?

Another Penn Medicine study from earlier in the year found that a simple traffic light-style calorie warning system could help people make better decisions about the food they ordered. Red light? Eek, that has a bunch of calories that I probably don’t need. Best to leave it be. Green light? Score. Simple, right? And kind of obvious.

But a whole lot of the snacks in your workplace probably don’t have helpful traffic light-style calorie warning systems. They probably don’t even have nutritional labels. They might even be homemade (like banana bread), or come from a larger package (like Halloween candy), or just be packaged in such a way that those labels aren’t available (the aforementioned Insomnia cookies, or the muffins from the downstairs coffee shop).

In a blog post from last Thanksgiving, I talked with Penn Medicine’s David Metz, MD, Associate Chief for Clinical Affairs within the gastrointestinal division. He gave me an interesting perspective on how overeating can happen so easily:

“Human beings were never made to be able to shop at supermarkets,” he explained. “We’re opportunistic eaters. Our natural state is to be hungry; we’re supposed to eat to survive.”

Put another way: Food being out in the open and readily available can trigger that primordial instinct in all of us that says, basically, ’I gotta get me some of that, because I don’t know when my next meal might come.’”

Except, if you’re an office worker, you most likely do know where your next meal is coming from. You may even already know what it is, and when you’re having it. The uncertainty’s gone, the worries sated—but the instinct remains, because millions of years of evolution still hold at least some sway over the past hundred years or so of readily available treats.

I spoke to Penn Medicine’s Richard L. Doty, PhD, about what makes presumably well-fed folks partake in snacks around the office. Doty is a professor within the Department of Otorhinolaryngology at the Perelman School of Medicine, and director of the Smell and Taste Center here.

“Eating breakfast can reduce the tendency to snack later in the morning,” Doty said. “Blood sugar drops in persons who skip breakfast, increasing hunger and lowering energy. This can lead to a need or an impulse to snack, often on high-sugar or high-fat foods, even when hunger is not recognized.”

Basically: If you skip breakfast, you’re more likely to grab at those workplace snacks—even if you don’t feel all that hungry.

Still, Doty noted, making sure you eat breakfast doesn’t solve everything. For example: If you find yourself going after office treats because you’re dragging a bit, a nice breakfast isn’t necessarily going to help you for more than a few hours.

“Although eating a hearty breakfast is known to improve mood, such improvement dissipates after an hour or two,” he said.

Reality is reality, and sugary workplace temptations are here to stay. The most important thing to keep in mind the next time you’re confronted with ‘em is, simply, moderation. If you had breakfast, you almost certainly don’t need a whole bagel between that and lunch. Indulge in a half- or quarter-bagel, and save yourself some room for whatever lunch you’re looking forward to. Two cookies? Try one. Try half of one! Your blood sugar will thank you later.

If nothing else, remember this: The instinct that tells you to grab that snack may be the same instinct that guided prehistoric man, but prehistoric man didn’t ever get to experience drive-thru windows.

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