This week saw the majority of the Form team reconvene in our office for the first time in months. It was an oddly comforting experience. Instead of going through the workday in relative solitude, there was now brainstorming around the Nespresso machine (“that froth”) and shared Deliveroo at lunch (“can’t beat a Waga’s”).
General eating habits, including my own, have been pretty inconsistent in the past WFH year, with snacking becoming a concern. Data taken from 97,000 respondents to the COVID Symptom Study found that 31 percent had admitted they were snacking more than before, with an average of 7lbs of weight gained from March 2020 to June 2020.
But as we slowly return to office life, a new study suggests that our eating habits might re-find an even keel.
The research published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour looked at the cumulative social influence of food choices among 6,000 employees at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Across diverse ages and socioeconomic status, the researchers looked at the eating habits of employees at the hospital system’s seven cafeterias over two years.
Food purchases were given a ranking depending on their healthfulness, with researchers inferring the participants’ social networks by examining how many minutes apart two people ate and whether these times were regularly at the same time.
The results found that instead of choosing food to satisfy an individual craving — as we’re likely to do when working from home — employees eating together were actually far more likely to select foods that were healthy, or unhealthy, depending on what category their social network’s trays fell into. Put in simple terms, if your workmates eat healthily, you’re more inclined to as well.
Using That Influence
The findings raise a couple of points about how we can use group settings to maintain healthier lunchtime habits in the future. One approach might be to have an influential person in a particular social circle model more healthful food choices in order to affect others in the network. Another might be to target pairs of people making food choices and offer two-for-one sales on salads and other healthier foods but no discounts on unhealthier choices.
“As we emerge from the pandemic and transition back to in-person work, we have an opportunity to eat together in a more healthful way than we did before,” says co-author of the study Mark Pachucki, PhD, an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts.
“If your eating habits shape how your co-workers eat — even just a little — then changing your food choices for the better might benefit your co-workers as well.”