It’s there after every meeting. And on Fridays. And birthdays. And every day that the office manager remembers to fill up her candy jar. The two most dangerous words to the subconscious of someone trying to lose weight: free food.

But it’s never really free, is it? In the 1870s, saloons in New Orleans, New York and San Francisco started offering working-class men free lunches with the purchase of a single beer. The lunches seemed to be worth a lot more than the beer. Foods like corned beef sandwiches, all-you-can-eat salted peanuts, salami, pickles and pretzels were served. All of it was salty, so the men became thirsty and ordered more beer. And more beer. Until they had spent much more on beer than the food cost. Hence, “There’re no such thing as a free lunch.”

Free food gets digested in the gut the same way the food you pay for does, but “free” gets digested differently in the brain. Brian Wansink, PhD, studies mindless eating at the Cornell Food Lab, and he has actually tested free office food consumption. It turns out every time we see it — or get near it — we spend a little bit of our limited willpower resisting it.

And the 30th time you walk by that plate of donuts, you’re much more likely to say, “Screw it. I’m hungry!” It doesn’t even matter what the food is — in one experiment, Wansink left out trays of plain, 2-week-old popcorn and watched people reach for more as they walked by the tray again!

Tired of struggling with your willpower? Try these tips to avoid those free office snacks.

Wansink placed candy jars of chocolate in people’s cubicles for a month, then moved them a mere 6 feet away. Simply having the candy closer meant people reached for five more treats a day. That adds up to 125 calories daily, or 12 pounds a year. We often snack because it’s convenient, so taking the long way to the copy machine could make you less likely to grab that candy.

Every time you walk by the break room and don’t stop for donut is a victory. Treat it that way: Do a little spin, tell yourself, “Good job!” or hum a happy tune. By rewarding yourself (non-calorically) whenever you are externally triggered and don’t give in, you are actually creating a small habit loop that will make further resistance easier.

Instead of immediately popping that mini-Snickers into your mouth, carry it back to your desk and place it in an inconvenient drawer. At the end of the week, look at how much candy is there and think about eating all of it in one sitting without getting a tummy ache.

The most effective habit I teach people who want to avoid snacking is very simple: eat three or four meals a day. (Keeping in mind that a “meal” is when you sit down and don’t do anything except eat.) Since most people have no idea how many calories they are sneaking in between meals, this habit eliminates all of them at once, and puts all the willpower you have into three or four decisions. Sometimes it really can be as easy as that.

7 Comments

  1. Jackie

    I always have trouble staying away from the unhealthy food at the office…does anybody know if there are companies that have healthy vending machines for things like smoothie bowls??

  2. britches

    I work in a bakery, and some days it is torture! I tell myself that the sugar, bread, etc. might be delicious, but it is poison (bc it really is)!

    I pack healthy snacks for when all else fails and I want to cave. It might not be AS delicious, but I can still have something pretty delicious and it distracts my brain from obsessing about the sweets/bread I shouldn’t have.

  3. Karen

    One day I just said to myself- I’m going to be the person at work who “never eats that junk”.. people would comment that I ate “so healthy” and it made me feel good about my decisions. I also realized on certain days if I went in by the cookies I was going to eat 5 of them so I just didn’t go in the break room. I’d take a walk at lunch instead…and guess what- Im also the person at work who’s lost 70lbs. Now I couldn’t care less about that junk. Let everyone else gobble it up and complain they are “so tired” and “can’t lose weight.”

  4. Lori Davis

    Please consider not putting photos like this on your blog that feed through our app. It doesn’t help motivate to see this when I login first thing in the morning. Use different healthy images or non food images that communicate the same thing. Thank you!

  5. Maven Whiskey

    I Tell myself I am allowed to have it. Just not right now, come back later. In reality, my office is full of millennial vultures and they will Hoover it in an hour if I leave it alone, and there won’t be any for me to eat. But by not denying myself at all, I’m short cutting the negative feedback loop.

  6. Tasty treats

    I think about what people may have on their hands beforehand. Some people call it potty hands! Eww 😖

  7. B South

    My rule is simple, “If you’re going to eat a doughnut, make it a good one. Not some cheap grocery store or pre-packed doughnut. But one of those gourmet ones, in the $3 range. The same rule applies to cupcakes.

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