Is Your Job Making You Fat?
How to watch your weight in the workplace.
By Leanna Skarnulis
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
When Madeline Phillips moved from the U.S. to Saipan (in the Northern Mariana Islands) and went to work in an insurance office, it wasn't long before her weight started creeping up. No wonder: About three times a week, foods like cake, doughnuts, fried rice, or fried Spam appeared in the break room.
"I've never seen anything like it," she says. "Everyone you encountered would tell you that so-and-so brought such-and-such, and then they'd watch to see if you ate. It was a sign of your acceptance of them. Taking the food brought you into the group, and not taking it kept you out."
After a few months of sociable eating, Phillips decided to call a halt. "It's very nice to be accepted, but it's also nice to be thin. When somebody offered something, instead of taking it I'd laugh nervously and say, 'That looks great.' I don't think it fooled anybody."
She kept her weight under control, but says she never did fit in with her co-workers, most of whom were overweight. Today she works in a different office where food isn't an issue. Perhaps it's because there's no break room.
Social pressure to eat is one of many reasons some workplaces seem to promote weight gain, experts say. Others include stress, skipped meals, ever-present vending machines, and, of course, those tempting treats brought in by co-workers.
And then there's the all-day temptation that happens when your job is all about food. A 28-year-old cook at a pizzeria in Omaha says that when he and his co-workers tire of eating pizza (and the boss is gone), they tap their network of neighborhood eateries and trade pizza for ice cream, burgers, etc.
"I can eat all I want because I spend a couple of hours a day at the gym," says the cook, who spoke to WebMD on condition that his name not be used. "But most people [at the workplace] just keep getting fatter."
Even if you can't spend hours at the gym, earning a living -- even in a temptation-filled workplace -- doesn't have to earn you extra pounds as well. Experts who spoke to WebMD recommend a two-pronged approach: Enlist support, and have a plan of action for yourself.
A Healthier Workplace
First, take a lesson from employers who are actively promoting good health habits in the workplace.
Logan Aluminum in Russellville, Ky., has an 11-year-old wellness program most workers can only dream about. The company has about 1,000 employees, mostly male. Each year the company sets company-wide goals and encourages work teams and individuals to set goals.
Last year's employee goals included reducing body mass index (BMI), exercising at least three times a week, reducing tobacco use, increasing use of seat belts, and lowering health-care costs.
"Kentucky ranks fourth among states in the incidence of obesity," says Logan's wellness director, Teresa Lovely. "Around here, people raise tobacco and eat fried food."
Last year, Logan saw a 4% increase in the number of workers whose BMI is in the acceptable range and an 8% increase in exercise. Of the 900 employees who set wellness goals, 800 met them and received $50 gift cards.
"That's very high participation," says Lovely. "The first year we had individual goals was 1997, and we awarded incentives to just 10 people."
The wellness program includes classes, a fitness center, and a policy of offering healthy alternatives whenever the company provides food. For example, in addition to hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, and soda at the company picnic, there are grilled chicken breasts, baked chips, bottled water, and fresh fruit. "We've made these changes, and people accept them," says Lovely.
What can you do in a workplace that isn't quite so diet-friendly? Virtually every company has people who want to control their weight. Lovely suggests that health-conscious workers get together and hold contests on their own to lose weight, increase exercise, or reduce BMI.
Most weight loss contests reward people for losing the most weight, but Lovely advises caution. "Sometimes that encourages unhealthy behavior," she says. An alternative is to reward everyone who finishes the contest.
She adds that holding a contest doesn't require money: "People love to earn points."
Some people avoid contests because they don't want to publicize how much they weigh or how much they're losing. In this case, Lovely suggests holding a "celebrity" weight loss challenge in which people report their progress using an alias such as "Jennifer Lopez" or "Will Smith."
When You're on Your Own
Worst-case scenario: all your co-workers seem to be part of a conspiracy to make everyone fat. You can still triumph. You just need a strategy you can live with, says the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic "Recipe Doctor," Elaine Magee, MPH, RD. She describes her plan: