- Coworkers might be able to influence your healthy food choices.
- Even if you work from home, your employer and coworkers could still sway your eating patterns and behaviors.
- Peer pressure, encouragement, and social norms may explain this relationship.
Your coworkers might help you adopt a healthier diet, according to a new study published in BMC Public Health.
For example, going to the office cafeteria with your coworkers who are more likely to eat fruit and vegetables may lead you to order a salad instead of a burger. Anne van der Put, MS, a co-author of the study and a PhD candidate at the department of sociology at Utrecht University, said that peer pressure is partially responsible for this choice, but other factors are at play.
“We are around them so much and we see what they eat and what they do,” van der Put told Verywell. “I see my colleagues more often than my friends. I even see some colleagues more often in a day than my partner.”
Previous studies have shown the influence of social groups on health. The landmark Christakis and Fowler study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 was one of the first to connect the risk of developing obesity with social ties and stated the risk increased by 57% if an individual’s friend developed obesity.
While research has established that friends can influence health behaviors, scientists are still learning how casual relationships, like coworkers, can impact our eating habits.
“We’re social creatures and we are susceptible to social influence from our peers. It would not be surprising to see that in the workplace, too,” said Douglas E. Levy, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who also studied the connection between food choice and the role of colleagues before.
Levy’s team reviewed food choices from seven hospital cafeterias that used a “traffic light” labeling system to identify healthy (green) and unhealthy (red) foods. They found that coworkers who ate together were likely to influence each other’s eating patterns, especially when it came to healthy foods.
“It could be peer pressure, or it could be just exposure to a certain norm,” Levy said.
While Levy found that coworkers were more likely to encourage healthy eating behaviors, it’s also possible for coworkers to have a bad influence.
“You go to lunch with your coworkers and somebody gets a cheeseburger and fries, that sort of gives everybody else permission to get cheeseburger and fries. It says, ‘we’re not going to judge you adversely for doing so,’” Levy said.
What If You Work from Home?
Both van der Put’s and Levy’s research examined how coworkers influence dietary habits when they share a workspace or eat in the same cafeteria. But these experts believe the influence could extend to virtual workplace interactions as well.
van der Put said she’s working on a study that found that even if employees work from home, their eating patterns and behaviors could still be affected by employers and colleagues.
“We thought it was interesting because if you work from home, you have less contact with your colleagues but they are still an important reference group,” van der Put said.
Levy added that some participants in the 2007 Christakis and Fowler study did not live near each other, yet they still influenced their peers to eat healthier. Remote workers who connect online regularly, then, may still be susceptible to peer influence.
“The effects of the pandemic on the workplace and coming back to the workplace are still very much works in progress,” Levy said.
How Much Influence Do Your Workers Really Have?
Tricia Leahey, PhD, a professor specializing in behavioral medicine and lifestyle interventions for obesity treatment at the University of Connecticut, told Verywell that the concept of homophily, or the tendency to connect with people who are similar to us, may also influence the research findings.
“We’re attracted to people who have similar perspectives or engage in similar behaviors,” Leahey said. “It may be that we choose to hang out with coworkers who are like us.”
On the other hand, she said the workplace can bring people together who would not otherwise interact. The nature of these relationships could lead to social influence through modeling.
“You’re going to the cafeteria with a new colleague and maybe they choose a healthy salad then maybe you’re more likely to choose a healthy salad. You could see where that could play out,” she said.
Whether it’s peer pressure, encouragement, or a bond strengthened by sharing healthy habits, evidence suggests that coworkers can influence your eating behaviors. Now, scientists want to determine how to translate this research into successful workplace wellness programs.
“Creating a healthier workplace culture is a collective effort,” van der Put said. “It really only helps if you have this support throughout the organization.”
What This Means For You
Access to healthy foods will also help employees make healthy choices. The food choices available in a break room or cafeteria will also influence what coworkers eat when they are together.