Beware of the ‘Food Altar’ at Work

ThinkstockPhotos-178634141Anthropologists tell us that sharing food is nearly universal in human society. And that includes the office.

Some workplaces have raised the custom to a high art. Think of Doughnut Day. Strawberries from the garden. Cookies from home. Leftovers from a lunch meeting. M&Ms in a bowl on the boss’s desk.

These rituals humanize the workplace. They break up the monotony of work. And who doesn’t like to eat?

One problem: Much of that food is unhealthy. And the cornucopia can undercut both company wellness programs and individual efforts at healthy eating. What good does it do to put bananas in the vending machines or carrots in your lunch bag when Susie in accounting brings brownies?

One recent study about this problem says there’s a term for that place in every office where food gets piled. They’re called “food altars,” according to four researchers at the University of California Davis.

Published in the June issue of the journal Food, Culture & Society, the study was by Carolyn Thomas, Jennifer Sedell, Charlotte Biltekoff and Sara Schaefer. They studied the eating habits of 25 university office workers to draw some conclusions that could apply to many workplaces.

They found that while health-conscious employees might have elaborate systems to control consumption, their efforts often were “sabotaged by food that simply materialized in the workplace.” Food altars, they wrote, are “responsible for the majority of unplanned and ‘unhealthful’ eating decisions in the workplace.”

The result: “A workplace-sanctioned system of food-choice challenges.”

Anyone who’s worked in an office will recognize the problem. Yet how can we control it? No one wants to be the Grinch who refuses to bring in bagels when it’s their turn. Or to be the boss who issues a memo declaring the office a carrot-cake-free zone.

The study authors don’t propose a solution. But at least they’ve identified a problem and given it a name. The rest, alas, is up to us.