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Purchasing meals at worksites may raise risk of chronic diseases

A recent study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics determined the foods most commonly obtained at workplaces and their dietary quality.

The epidemic of chronic diseases has become more evident in the past decade. In Canada alone, the World Health Organization previously projected 89% of all deaths to be related to chronic disease. Most of the conditions that fall under this categorization have relations to nutrition and diet.

With approximately 150 million working adults, workplace interventions and “wellness efforts” were created to change health behaviours in employees, reduce absenteeism, and reduce health care costs. Such included nutritional counselling, smoke-free policies, insurance benefits, and provision of healthy workplace food options.

Despite the positive changes witnessed within these wellness efforts, lead researcher Stephen J. Onufrak noticed that little is actually known about the worksite behaviours regarding food and the workplace food that is offered and obtained. Onufrak and his team tackled this problem using data from the Food Acquisition and Purchasing Survey (FoodAPS) for over 5000 working adults over the age of 18. The foods obtained in the workplace were tracked for seven days and the top 10 food categories were identified based on the prevalence of purchase throughout the study. In addition, the kilocalories per capita were calculated to determine the source of energy one would obtain from purchasing a workplace food item.

Most food offered at workplaces are high in empty calories, sodium, and refined grains

The results, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that throughout the seven day period, 23.4% of individuals acquired at least one workplace food item. Interestingly, education level was significantly correlated with the prevalence of food obtained. Compared to those with only a high school diploma, college graduates were shown to be two times more likely to obtain workplace food throughout the week. This was attributed to higher education levels working at larger companies that offer different work environments with greater food choices.

The caloric value from all the workplace food obtained was 1292 kcal per week, with an average of 430 kcal per purchase. An HEI-2010 (2010 Healthy Eating Index) score calculated for the workplace foods within the top 10 categories found majority to be high in empty calories, sodium, and refined grains while being low in whole grains and fruit. Many of the foods were also identified to be high in solid fat, added sugars, and sodium. Onufrak and his team interpreted these scores to reflect the food choices being made in a workplace environment.

A key finding of this study was that the typical workplace foods that are offered and purchased often do not align with the national dietary recommendations and guidelines. With a majority of research suggesting that a poor diet plays a factor in disease development, adults likely raise their risk of developing chronic diseases when surrounded by the unhealthy choices offered in workplace foods.

Employers should refine and improve their food options

Employers are suggested to refine and improve their offered food options to better the health of their workforce. Some employers have already taken up this initiative and offer accessible free water and affordable healthy food and drink options. The adoption of the food services guideline is aimed to promote a healthier and nutritious standpoint for the working population.

Overall, nearly a quarter of working adults obtain workplace foods at least once a week. Unfortunately, the food choices offered and often purchased in this environment have shown to be limited in nutrition. A better alignment with the food guide recommendations is needed to improve the quality and health of all employees.

Written by Stephanie C. Tsang


  1. Leahy, E. (2019, January 22). Widely available food in US workplaces: Perk or hazard? Retrieved from
  2. Onufrak, S. J., Zaganjor, H., Pan, L., Lee-Kwan, S. H., Park, S., & Harris, D. M. (2019). Foods and Beverages Obtained at Worksites in the United States. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2018.11.011
  3. Preventing chronic diseases: A vital investment. (2015, December 21). Retrieved from


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