In a divided nation, there's one thing I was pretty certain we could all agree on -- free snacks at work are great!

After all, the endless, company-provided smorgasbord at the likes of Google is the focus of constant, drooling media coverage. Plus, who doesn't like it when there are free donuts in the break room (aside from grumpy nutritionists)?

But, as I recently discovered, there actually is a camp that argues free snacks aren't just a tasty way to improve morale and get your team to stick around the office a bit longer. When the WSJ Experts blog rounded up its most popular health posts of 2016, I was surprised to see a piece entitled on "The Problem With Free Food at the Office" by psychiatrist Samantha Boardman on the list.

What's the problem with Swedish Fish? More than you imagine.

Boardman kicks off the piece by acknowledging the obvious: if unhealthy snacks are constantly scattered around the office, your team is going to be tempted into eating more of them them, which obviously isn't ideal from a health and fitness perspective.

"As one 20-something who used to work at a startup in Brooklyn with an all-you-can-eat candy bar told me, 'The amount of Swedish Fish I used to eat on a daily basis was obscene,'" she offers as an example.

But I'm betting pretty much none of you are shocked to read that. Boardman points out there's another reason to think twice about constantly refilling the office bowl of M&Ms, however. Unhealthy snacks don't just make you fat, she points out, they also make you less productive.

Partly that might have to do with how often you are tempted to get up and help yourself to another treat (though a ton of research shows regular short breaks actually tend to increase overall productivity), but it's also because of what sugary or highly processed snacks do to our body. Boardman uses the same Swedish Fish-addicted startup employee to make her point:

In addition to gaining weight, she describes how grazing all day on candy affected her productivity. "I would feel like the Energizer bunny and then totally crash." The spikes in blood sugar made it hard to concentrate and took a toll on her motivation and mood. "All that sugar turned me into a monster. After eating five fistfuls of Gummi Bears my nerves were frayed. Everyone knew not to come near me."

It's an argument made elsewhere by similarly well credentialed experts. For instance, David Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at Harvard, has described study results showing that after eating a sugary snack, "blood sugar soared but then crashed a few hours later, and when that happened, the [stress] hormone adrenaline, or epinephrine, surged to very high levels." In short, unhealthy snacks add to stress -- and kill productivity.

Maybe it's a good idea for employers to start thinking more carefully about handing them out then. Boardman offers a few techniques for mitigating the negative effects on your team without coming across as a no-fun, health-nut boss in her complete article. Or if you want to only opt for healthier snack alternatives, here are lots of suggestions.

What's your take on snacks in the office: do the advantages (tastiness, happiness, bonding) outweigh the negatives (calories and a post-sugar crash)?

Published on: Jan 23, 2017
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