You Are What You Eat at Work

The American workplace is ostensibly very healthy, cluttered with regulations that strive to keep everyone -- from the deskbound data worker to the foreman on the factory floor -- safe from hazards.

According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workplace fatalities have dropped as a percentage of the overall work force every year for the past decade.

But in many companies, trouble still lurks in a popular but overlooked area: the break room.

A new survey from Marlin Co., a workplace consultancy, shows that about two-thirds of us face unhealthy snack choices in workplace vending machines. And almost 75 percent of employers roll out the sugar-filled cakes, cookies and candy to celebrate special occasions, like birthdays or holidays.

Vending machine offerings and birthday cakes might seem minor, but experts say that dietary choices contribute in a major way to a person's longevity and health. And unhealthy food choices can have bottom-line implications for employers, big and small.

"When you look at the statistics, something like 60 percent of Americans are overweight," said Frank Kenna III, president and CEO of the Marlin Co. "From a dollars and cents point of view, this impacts everything from employee stress, sickness, productivity and even health insurance premiums. It's not just for the employee but the employer as well, and it all starts with lifestyle choices."

A wide realization of the importance of preventive health care is why the majority of U.S. employers encourage their workers to be aware of food choices. The Marlin survey shows that some 53 percent of employees receive info on healthy living from their employers.

Why the discrepancy in employers' healthy talk and their unhealthy walk?

"It's easier to talk about it than to do something about it," Kenna said. "It's easy for employers to put up posters or send out e-mails, but when it comes time to deliver, they put up rows of vending machines with sodas, candy and other unhealthy things. Employers could change, and some are starting to. But most are offering unhealthy food."

And some experts say that changing what employers provide could be the most important part of changing the trend in American dietary decline.

"We spend more time at work than at home," said Linda Shak, program coordinator at the Prevention Institute, which advocates healthy workplaces. "We really need to shift away from individual responsibility to corporate and government responsibility for creating an environment for healthy eating and activity."

Shak said that when companies started to ban smoking it created a cultural turning point that eventually made smoking less prevalent.

She said the same thing could happen for obesity and physical fitness if employers would adopt policies that encouraged healthy eating and more fitness in the workplace.

"It's important to realize that workplace changes can have a similar impact as changes that are taking place in the trend to healthier food at schools," said Shak. "Organizations should be thinking about broad changes to workplace practices that can change the lives and heath of their workers."

So the next time you're considering an afternoon visit to the vending machine or grabbing an extra slice of cake at a co-workers birthday bash, consider this. Kenna said America's addiction to workplace junk food costs billions -- if not tens of billions -- of dollars every year. And it could shorten your life.