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Is the food at your workplace wrecking your diet?

New research suggests food options available at U.S. workplaces are likely doing no favors for Americans' waistlines.

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found nearly a quarter of employed U.S. adults obtain food or beverages at work at least once a week. And those foods and drinks are typically unhealthy, often high in calories, sodium, added sugars, and refined grains.

Investigators looked at data collected from 2012 to 2013 on more than 5,000 study participants from across the country. On average, each person consumed nearly 1,300 calories from foods and drinks at work per week. Generally, these foods and beverages did not align well with the Department of Health and Human Service's Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The most common foods and drinks obtained at work include pizza, soft drinks, cookies, cakes, brownies, pies, and candy. The foods included in the study were either purchased on site at work either from a cafeteria or vending machine or offered for free in common areas, during meetings, or at worksite social events. The data did not include foods that were brought into work from home or purchased at off-site restaurants or retail stores.

Improving food options for employees

Researchers say improving the nutritional quality of foods eaten at work can go a long way in improving the nation's health. Obesity and poor nutrition are two of the main risk factors for chronic conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. These diseases make up seven of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States and account for 84 percent of total health care costs, the researchers point out.

Previous research published in 2010 found that three in 10 working adults in the U.S. were obese. Employed adults with obesity also report eating less fruits and vegetables and lower levels of physical activity outside of work than normal weight adults.

With approximately 150 million working adults nationwide, the researchers say employers are in position to institute workplace wellness programs with the potential to reach and have an impact on a large number of Americans' health.

"Employers can offer appealing and healthy options in cafeterias, vending machines, and at meetings and social events," said lead CDC investigator Stephen J. Onufrak, PhD, a researcher with CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity. "One way to do this is by incorporating food service guidelines and healthy meeting policies into worksite wellness efforts."

In addition to providing foods that are more in line with the dietary guidelines, including fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds, work places can take additional steps to help improve health of employees.

"Foods can be placed in areas that encouraged consumption of the better choices, like placing fruit on the welcome desk or bottles of water at the cash register, and keeping unhealthy choices in less appealing places such as putting full sugar sodas on the very top or very bottom rack of the cooler," Debbie Petitpain, MS, RDN a media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told CBS News. "And financial incentives, such as a frequency program or employee discount, can be used to encourage employees to make the healthy choice."

Making healthier choices at work

Employees can also do their part to make healthier food decisions at work. Petitpain recommends knowing what food options are available in the cafeteria or vending machines before lunch or snack time.

"Many operations post a menu online or outside the cafeteria so you can review the options and pick the best choice ahead of time instead of making the decision when you are hungry, under a time crunch and smelling burgers," she said.

Simple swaps can also reduce the amount of calories, sodium, and added sugars consumed. These include choosing baked chicken over fried, a sandwich instead of pizza and an unsweetened drink like tea or carbonated water rather than soda.

For breakfast, Petitpain suggests eating a whole grain cereal or oatmeal instead of processed meat like bacon or a stack of pancakes. And for a snack, sticking with yogurt, a fruit cup, or cottage cheese, or selecting nuts, trail mix, or whole grain crackers from the vending machine over sweets or chips is the way to go.  

The new CDC research also found that nearly 70 percent of calories consumed at work came from free foods offered at meetings, in common areas, or at workplace social events. While experts say employers can work to address the healthfulness of these free foods, employees can also take steps to avoid temptation.

"Unfortunately, even if the food is free, the calories still count. Portion control makes all the difference," Petitpain said. "One slice of veggie pizza or a small slice of cake can be worked into an overall healthy diet. A healthy eating pattern isn't defined by one meal. You can always alter your dinner to balance out foods eat during work hours. Remember, though, that just because it's offered, you don't have to eat it."

She recommends keeping busy during meetings by taking notes or chatting with co-workers at celebrations to keep from nibbling. 

While the study didn't take into account foods brought in to work by colleagues, anyone who's ever worked in an office knows it's the first place people bring leftover Halloween candy or holiday treats.

"Ask your colleagues to adopt a 'no junk food' policy or to also bring a healthy treat with the unhealthy one," Petitpain recommends. "Research shows that keeping the treats out of sight, say in the break room or in a cabinet, reduces mindless snacking. Brushing your teeth after lunch or chewing gum can keep you from nibbling, as well."

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