Is your work cafeteria a minefield or a wildflower meadow?

So you like a slice of cake with your afternoon coffee. You’re not alone.

Your office cafeteria serves fresh cake every day. It’s right there on the counter when you order your coffee. You see it. You smell it. It triggers a powerful, and very human, craving. And it’s so easy to obtain.

No wonder eating cake has become a daily habit.

But what if you go to the cafeteria tomorrow and see that the cake has been replaced with fresh fruit and nuts. You’ll still get the cake craving but you now can’t obtain it. Sure, you could go out of the office to hunt down some cake, but this seems like a lot of effort, so you don’t bother. You begrudgingly buy some almonds.

You consider bringing cake in with you the following day, but this means a trip to the bakery in the morning, which is too far out of your way. You could call at the supermarket on your way home and pick up some cake. But that feels a little desperate. You ask yourself, is cake really that important?

After a few days, you stop thinking about cake, and are now in the habit of having a handful of almonds with your afternoon coffee. It was never your intention to do this. There was no decision making or willpower required. It just happened. But you feel good about it and wonder what other healthy changes you could make.

This scenario may seem a little contrived, but it illustrates the power that our food environment has over our food choices and health.

In fact, as a recent study showed, making small changes to the availability and portion size of food in worksite cafeterias results in a meaningful reduction in purchased calories.

Here’s a quick summary of the study:

  • Set in worksite cafeterias serving more than 20,000 employees in 19 supermarket distribution centres across the UK
  • Employees had no access to any other food outlets during work hours (apart from some vending machines)
  • In the ‘availability’ intervention, 16% of high calorie products were replaced with lower calorie alternatives for 8 weeks
  • In the ‘size’ intervention (the availability intervention continued), the portion sizes of 7% of the remaining high calorie products were reduced by 14% (on average) for a further 4 to 13 weeks
  • Total calories purchased fell by 11.5%

A more than 10% reduction in purchased calories, without the employees making any conscious effort. That’s impressive.

The question is, did that translate into a similar reduction in calorie intake? During work hours, it probably did, but it wasn’t measured.

We don’t know if there was a compensatory increase in calorie intake outside work. Other research shows that portion reduction doesn’t change satiety and calorie intake later the same day. However, it’s well-known that, over the longer term, the brain fights against sustained calorie deficit and weight loss by making you hungry and reducing your calorie expenditure.

Improving food quality (with an emphasis on simple, unprocessed foods), rather than simply reducing calorie content, appears to be a better way to regulate appetite longer term. For example, people following a low-fat, reduced-calorie diet regain almost all of the lost weight after four years, but people following a Mediterranean (i.e., good quality) diet are able to keep most of the weight off

To be fair, the availability intervention in the cafeteria study did improve the quality of some items. For example, battered fish was switched for grilled salmon. But not others, for example Victoria sponge was switched for marmalade cake. And both the availability and size interventions only touched a small proportion of food products.

Still, employees purchased 11.5% fewer calories, and their calorie intake (at work) probably fell by a similar amount.

Imagine what might have happened if every food and drink item was optimised for quality. If the cafeteria was full of fresh, unprocessed, nutrient-rich options, and devoid of processed, nutrient-poor junk.

Actually, we don’t have to imagine. We have some data on that. Unlimited access to only unprocessed food results in an immediate reduction in calorie intake and rapid weight loss. And this happens with no conscious effort, no feelings of restriction or hunger or suffering. Switching the unprocessed food with ultra-processed food has (and this will comes as no surprise) the opposite effect.

It’s not just about calories and body weight, of course. Unprocessed food also provides far more essential nutrients than processed food, benefitting every system in the body and brain.

The food environment has a very powerful influence on food selection, calorie intake and health. The type of food available in your workplace cafeteria really does matter for employee wellbeing (whether the employees notice or not).

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