Food at work adds up to a lot of extra, often empty, calories: Study

The items are seldom a healthy salad or include a side of veggies.

Donuts, cookies, pastries, the candy dish, the vending machine and more -- are office foods making people fat?

The study surveyed 5,222 employees across the U.S., asking what foods they got from their workplace during a seven-day period. Researchers found that a quarter of these employees, most of whom were college graduates, women and non-Hispanic whites, did get food and beverages at work.

"Nearly one in four working adults obtained food at work during the week, and the food and beverages that they got added up to an average of nearly 1,300 calories, more than half the recommended daily calorie intake for the average adult," lead author Stephen Onufrak, an epidemiologist in the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told ABC News. "With employees spending eight hours a day on average at their place of employment, a lot of people may not be aware of all of the calories they get from work, especially from foods they get for free."

Free food was the most common source of what people ate at work in the study, at 17 percent, versus those who purchased food at work, at 8 percent.

The foods were seldom a healthy salad or included a side of veggies –- they tended to be processed, high in salt and included "empty" calories, things like pizza, soft drinks, cookies, brownies, cakes, pies and candy.

The study suggested ways for workplaces to promote access to healthier foods, noting that changing employees' health behaviors has the potential to reduce both sick days and health care costs for companies -– added motivations to the public health concerns.

Some of the suggestions?

Cafeterias could promote a salad bar over a pizza or burrito station. Vending machines could swap their cheese-flavored corn chips, at 250 calories with little nutritional value, for sunflower seeds that include healthy fats and fiber, at 160 calories.

Listing calories, and nutritional content, on vending machine and cafeteria items could also help deter employees from eating some unhealthier items.

Since a lot of the food items obtained by employees were free, employers may also want to consider promoting policies to encourage healthy food options.

"Employers can encourage healthier foods at meetings and events, especially when the employer is providing free food to employees," Onufrak said. "Providing delicious, appealing, healthy food can also help to create a culture of health at a workplace."

This study was limited in some ways, including that it was based on participants' memory of what they ate in a seven-day period.

The findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal; they were presented by the researchers at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, the first week in June.