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Nudge eating habits at work to significantly improve health

Nudge eating habits at work to improve health

When you consider just how many hours we spend at work – about half of our waking hours in America, on average – most of us might guess that what we eat at the office has a pretty significant impact on our overall health.

And hey, look at that! NEW INTERESTING STUDY ALERT. Now there’s actual research to support this idea – conducted by Dr. Anne Thorndike, right here in our own backyard at Mass General Hospital.  

In the study, Dr. Thorndike concludes:

“There is definitely a relationship between what you’re purchasing at work and your overall dietary intake and health risk factors.”

In other words: people who make healthier food choices at work tend to be much healthier overall. We’re talking lower blood pressure, healthier weight, and fewer instances of diabetes.

So if what we eat at work impacts our health that drastically, the big question is this: 

What realistic changes can we make at work to nudge ourselves towards healthier habits?

Enter: another Mass General study conducted by Dr. Thorndike. This one is particularly interesting because it resulted in long-term healthier eating habits in the work environment. As in 2+ years.

This is significant because, historically, the problem with many workplace wellness interventions is that any positive results are often short-lived.

So, what changes did researchers from this study make in the workplace that led to such successful, sustainable results? And how can we mimic those in our own office settings?

Change #1: The Traffic Light Intervention

Anyone who has purchased food at Mass General hospital since 2010 has probably noticed green, red, and yellow labels on most of the food items they browsed.

These are known as “traffic light labels”. This simplified food labeling system makes it easy to spot the healthy foods from the unhealthy ones without having to read and interpret nutrition labels on every item. How? By color-coding each item based on its health factor:

Green = healthy, eat often

Yellow = less healthy, eat moderately

Red = unhealthy, eat sparingly

Change #2: The Choice Architecture Intervention

This change is one we’ve written about in the past. Several times actually. Because it’s that effective.

So what’s this super important change?

Make the healthier food items the easiest options to choose. In the Mass General study, this involved placing the healthier food items – those with green labels – front and center in the cafeteria.

The final conclusions from this study? These two interventions: 

“...resulted in sustained healthier choices over 2 years, suggesting that food environment interventions can promote long-term changes in population eating behaviors”

Much of Dr. Thorndike’s research has great implications for changes employers can make to successfully improve their employees' eating habits on a larger scale.

But as an employee, this raises an important question:

How can we implement these changes into our work environment as individuals?

Here are some suggestions based on the 2 main interventions from the study: 

1. The Traffic Light Intervention

The point:

To help people make healthier impulse purchases without restricting their freedom of choice.

How to implement this concept into your own workspace:

Two keywords here: plan ahead.

Make it easy to choose the healthier options by planning your meals in advance.

For instance:

If you’re going out to eat: browse the menu ahead of time – before you’re starving (for time and, ya know, food…) so you can pick out your favorite healthier options. That way, you're less likely to pick an unhealthy choice on a whim.

If you’re eating at the office: prepare your food for the week in advance - like on Sunday night or at the beginning of the week - to avoid unhealthy impulse purchases while at work. Looking for “green-light” lunch ideas to prep ahead? Here are some healthy, easy-to-prepare meal ideas from Mass General’s wellness website.

2. The Choice Architecture Intervention

The point:

To reduce unhealthy impulse purchases by making the healthier options more visible, more accessible, and easier to choose.

How to implement this concept into your own workspace:

Make unhealthy meals and snacks less accessible by strategically placing healthier snacks in your line of vision.

For instance:

Replace the candy jar with fruitReplace unhealthy snacks with easy, grab-and-go, healthy snacks in your desk drawersKeep a water bottle on you at all times to make hydrating an easy habit

The main idea is this: make the unhealthy items the more difficult options to choose. Force yourself to have to get up to grab that candy bar. Or that soda. And make it easy for yourself to choose the apple or the pre-portioned baggie of almonds. 

Have any other ideas on how to nudge ourselves towards the healthier choices at work? We'd love to hear from you. Give us a shout on Instagram or Facebook

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