Eating at work under the peripheral vision of your colleagues is an overwhelmingly common practice: A 2012 study revealed that only one in five North American workers take lunch breaks away from their desks. And just last year, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature chronicling the rise of eating at one’s desk: “Breaking for a midday meal might have made more sense when laborers toiled with their bodies on tasks — building, planting, harvesting, manufacturing — that required rest and refueling. But in an economy where the standard task is sitting in front of a computer, lunch is less intuitive and far more optional,” wrote Malia Wollan in “Failure to Lunch.”
But despite articles that preach again and again about how taking breaks makes us more productive at work (and photographic evidence of how depressing we look when we don’t), most of us won’t dare to break the cycle. Maybe you’ll forgo the 10-minute walk to Chipotle and back so you can leave work at a reasonable time. Maybe no one in your office takes lunch breaks, and you’re afraid doing so will make you look less committed. Maybe you have yet to master the fine art of making breakfast at home in the morning, and you’re forced to scarf down a muffin at your desk.
But eating in public is not totally strange. Going out to eat is common, but in those situations, there’s a thread of understanding: We’re all in the same place, we know each other, and we’ve chosen to be here. On the flip side, no one chooses their co-workers. And unless you’ve chosen to eat with strangers on your own volition — like, let’s say, at a meetup with the sole intention of connecting — many wouldn’t choose to share daily meals with strangers.
It’s good, then, that most of us understand the basic unwritten rules of eating at work: Don’t bring foul-smelling food to your desk so as to avoid odors wafting into your colleague’s nostrils. If you spill your oatmeal, clean it up. Don’t chomp loudly on carrots all day. (I could go on.) But there are other, more unspoken axioms of eating at work that often go ignored — and they create stipulations can put both men and women in distressing situations
One of the most disconcerting parts of eating at work is that what was once private becomes unavoidably public. Food is intrinsically tied to our bodies. Many feel that “calories in, calories out” is a way to gauge control over one’s size and shape. And while most people won’t comment openly on their colleagues’ bodies, it’s easy — and seemingly benign — to comment on their food choices, potentially provoking unhealthy behaviors. Separating society’s innate obsession with dieting from daily, seemingly mundane routines — like eating at work — is difficult, since it’s so deeply embedded in our culture.
“Diet culture and mentality is pretty much everywhere, so you’re not going to be able to tease apart workplace and [home] life,” says Kiersten Rapstine, clinical supervisor at the Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment facility in Dallas, Texas. “It’s all over the place, and the office setting is no different. Everybody feels like they should be modifying their body, and people spend a bulk of their life at work.”
Several women I spoke with shared stories of how just how brazen their colleagues are in commenting on food choices.
One woman, who works in the food industry, told me, “I used to eat bagels a lot at work, and I don’t think it was directly aimed at me, but all the other girls in the office would be like, ‘I can’t eat a bagel today. I [have to] get ready for my bikini body!’ And finally, one day, I said, ‘I say your bikini body is whatever you want it to be.’”
Olivia, who worked at a swanky private club with celebrity clientele, told me that her co-workers would comment on her food choices, going so far as to note portion sizes: “I would get a salad from Chop’t or some other place like that, and people would comment on the fact that I [could eat] the entire thing when it’s ‘just too much’ for them.”
Danielle, who works in the corporate sector of fashion, told me that “whenever there’s a social gathering at work and it’s food-related…all the female employees feel obligated to announce why they are serving themselves [what they are serving themselves]. Like, ‘I’m bringing home an extra piece of cake for my boyfriend,’ or ‘Wow, this pizza is so good, and I just had a tiny breakfast, I just have to have a second slice.’”
Women aren’t the only culprits. Kira, who works at a restaurant, told me her male boss makes comments to his employees about what they should and shouldn’t be eating. “He weighs himself on a regular basis in [the] workplace and tells his employees, ‘There’s no such thing as too skinny.’” Though “men don’t completely escape [his behavior],” he is “particularly harsh with women.”
And therein lies the problem: People bring their own unhealthy beliefs about food into their workplace and impose them on other people. “In my opinion, the most dangerous aspect of food culture in an office is when there’s a strong diet culture, in the sense of everybody’s on a diet, everyone’s constantly commenting about their own food —‘I shouldn’t eat fat, I shouldn’t eat that,’” says Adina Pearson, R.D., from the Walla Walla Clinic in Walla Walla, Washington. “Commenting on other people’s food choices is just inappropriate. It doesn’t have a place in an office, and people should keep their eyes on their own plate or Tupperware.”
Pearson works with her clients to help them escape the traps of yo-yo dieting and other unhealthy eating behaviors and to become intuitive eaters. She wants them to truly understand hunger patterns so they can have a healthy relationship with food and nourish themselves properly. A busy work culture where everyone eats their desks can annihilate proper hunger cues.
“Without that [break for food, workers are] multitasking and eating and not paying attention to food in a mindful way,” says Pearson. “They’re going to ignore [their hunger cues and] put hunger on pause. When you ignore your body’s signals, they come back to bite you later.” For instance, if you don’t have an adequate meal, she says, and you’re nibbling at work and foregoing true meals or working while you’re eating, it’s hard to know if you’re truly being satisfied. The body tries “really hard to catch up,” however — so you can end up ravenous at the end of the day. Research published earlier this year highlighted how people are aware of only “a fraction of the food decisions [they] make” and “are either unaware of how [their] environment influences these decisions or unwilling to acknowledge that.”
For someone trying to learn healthy eating patterns, this can be a massive physical challenge. But the combination of dieting beliefs permeating work culture can exacerbate problems for people dealing with disordered eating or eating disorders.
“People with eating disorders will face challenges beyond the scope of comparison,” says Rapstine. “If you are working on recovery, if you’re dealing with an eating disorder, and you’re trying to get into recovery, [it’s important to] honor your hunger and fullness cues and to eat intuitively.” Long work hours that prevent taking time to eat can only exacerbate problems with already restrictive habits or encourage those who have impulsive ones.
“The office setting can increase the difficulties of [dealing with a troubled relationship with food], particularly if your work setting is stressful, because an eating disorder is a maladaptive way to tolerate stress,” says Rapstine. “So if you go to work and there’s conflict — if it’s a toxic situation or just an uncomfortable situation — people will use their relationship with food to manage those emotions, whether that’s eating a lot or eating very little.”
A new challenge is how body positivity has affected the way we eat. Undeniably, celebrating bodies of all sizes is the right thing, but the detour from shaming people has taken a sharp left into shaming people for being the person who picks the salad or who can’t just “lighten up” and have the brownie.
This can be extremely challenging for people who are struggling with overeating, especially considering how many office events are food-centric. “If the culture is ‘if you’re going to socialize, you have to have food, and it’s unthinkable not to,’” that can be a problem, says Karen Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed., who works with people who struggle with various problems with eating.
It can also be problematic for those who struggle with eating disorders. One woman I spoke to, who asked to remain nameless, worked at a talent agency during the height of her struggle with bulimia and is now in recovery. She told me that one “difficult thing about eating disorder recovery and offices is the way people push food on you during holidays and birthdays. I would feel pressured to eat food that I knew was not for me — usually bingeing on it or feeling guilty for not eating it. Because [of responses like], ‘Why aren’t you having a piece of cake? What’s wrong with you? You don’t like sugar?’ I’ve worked in several different office environments, and this is pretty universal.” She is now on a strictly regimented meal plan to help control her food addiction, compulsive overeating, and tendency to purge or restrict. Thanks to this meal plan, she is able to keep her disease dormant — though she stressed to me she does not believe she is truly “recovered.”
Even if a colleague thinks they’re helping a thin-looking co-worker by pushing food onto them, it’s not the best thing to do. “Part of the message I’ll preach to anybody that will listen is that an eating disorder doesn’t look like anything,” says Rapstine, adding that if someone at work sees something they’re concerned about, they should “privately check in [to see how the person they’re concerned about is] emotionally doing,” and not specifically address the concern about food.
From a logistical human resources perspective, taking a break to eat lunch likely will not mean the end of your career. “I don’t think it’s reasonable for anyone to expect you to never leave your desk,” says Lynn Taylor, workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant. In fact, she says, “One of the biggest problems with employees in general is that they don’t realize they have a lot of intrinsic value [to a company],” because it’s more difficult to go through the process of recruiting someone new to replace someone recently fired.
Another — albeit simplistic — solution is to be your own best advocate. Easier said than done: “I would really encourage people to get to a place where you can be assertive with cutting limits [on] other people’s stuff that they will bring into your [workplace],” says Rapstine.
What the woman in recovery has found is that nobody really cares what she eats: “Today, I mostly prepare my own food. For the most part, no one cares, but there’s always that one person [who] just needs to know what you’re eating and why you’re eating it. I’ve found that 99 percent of people who take issue with what I’m eating or not eating usually have their own issues with food. I can’t afford to be ashamed when I eat.”