10 Easy Tips for Preventing the Dreaded “Office 15” If You Work at a Desk All Day

Updated: Mar. 01, 2021

Don't let a sedentary job and too many break room treats and birthday parties sabotage your waistline!


Pack your food the night before

The emotional influence on food choice is undeniable. Luckily, you can make this work to your advantage by preparing food ahead of time. “Food is now so intertwined with rewards, celebrations, and so many other cultural moments in time,” says Adam Brumberg, deputy director of Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab. “If it were as simple as telling ourselves, ‘I’m going to put only the best quality fuel in my body,’ dietary disease would not have the prevalence it does today.” Work that to your advantage by being deliberate about when food will factor into your workday and planning accordingly. “Try to organize your day in such a way that food decisions are made in the evening or at a time when your stress level is likely to be lower and you have more time,” Brumberg says. “Making a lunch the night before is a much better than the option for calorie-laden convenience.” Be sure to take note of these 12 sneaky ways you get tricked into overeating.

P fotography/Shutterstock

Keep healthy snacks handy

Think about the space where you spend the greatest portion of your workday. As common sense as it sounds to store the tempting stuff out of sight, there are compelling research-backed benefits to do so. “Half of the battle is organizing your physical space to support your goals, in this case avoiding office job weight gain, and then making food decisions when you’re less likely to be stressed out,” Brumberg says. “A tactic as simple as thoughtfully arranging the food in your office can have a lot to do with what you grab when snack cravings strike.” When the healthier options are closest to you and easiest to reach, you are effectively priming yourself to make a more responsible food choice. “You take advantage of the convenience factor by stocking up on low-calorie food like unsalted nuts, low-calorie granola bars, and keeping them in your top drawer–while you stash the Hershey Kisses in a locked drawer where they are out of sight,” he says. (Or better yet, don’t keep them in your desk at all.) Here are nine healthy snacks you should always keep in your desk drawer.

Ruslan Grumble/Shutterstock

Skip the see-through containers

Save those candy jars and dishes for something besides candy. In a widely cited 2006 study, the Cornell Food & Brand Lab led an experiment to assess the influence of visibility and proximity on candy consumption. The research method spanned four weeks and examined daily candy intake in a clerical setting. The study tested both visibility (placing candies in clear and opaque dishes) and proximity (a candy dish on the desk versus several feet away). According to study findings, “people ate an average of 2.2 more candies each day when they were visible, and 1.8 more candies” when the treats were on their desk. “While ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is absolutely real, the reverse is also true,” Brumberg says.” The takeaway? Store it so you can’t see it and keep it far away from you. This works at home, too. Find out the best way to organize your fridge for optimal health.

g stockstudio/Shutterstock

Understand the food cue influence

Keep your hands and your mouth busy, and you’re less likely to grab a handful of M&Ms when you walk through reception. A 2016 meta-analytic study by Yale University Professor Hedy Kober, Ph.D, who also directs the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Yale University School of Medicine, validated the Cornell findings. It also supports the influence of food cues, or the prompts we see and smell that trigger a conditioned response to crave (and consume) a particular food or drink. Heart rate picks up, salivation increases, and gastric activity spikes, driving us to eat more. While you can’t strip your office environment of these influences, you can be prepared for them. “Don’t let yourself be caught off guard,” says Traci Mann, Ph.D. and author of Secrets from the Eating Lab. “Having coffee or another beverage in hand is a good idea—if your hands are full, you can’t do a quick grab.”

stanislaw tokarski/Shutterstock

Be a healthy food champion

Got a break room routinely laced with treats that leave you weak in the knees? Instead of avoiding the space, level the playing field with fresh fruits and veggies. “Science backs up the influence of proximity and visibility on cravings, and ultimately, the likelihood that we will cave into those cravings,” Kober says. What if you primed yourself to crave the opposite of tempting treats? The very act of bringing in shareable snacks that are healthier is not only a courtesy to your co-workers but can also prime the work environment in your dietary favor. “We have a shared kitchen, and I’ve asked colleagues not to bring in doughnuts,” Kober says. “For my part, while I’ll sometimes bring in a little chocolate, I definitely err on the side of bringing in a box of apples I just picked or blueberries to share.” Bonus? Apples and blueberries are 20 of the healthiest foods to eat.

William Perugini/Shutterstock

Be selfish about lunchtime

Even if the break room isn’t your Achilles heel, weight management experts advise taking your lunch hour elsewhere. “We know that if we’re not paying attention to food, it doesn’t register in our brain, making us hungrier later,” says weight management expert and author Karen R. Koenig, LCSW. To avoid the cycle of mindless eating, she advises having at least one mindful food interaction each day. That means more than just untethering yourself from any multitasking temptations (hello smartphone!). It takes finding a space as free from interruption as is practical, and focusing not on the 10,000 things you need to accomplish next, but on the food that is in front of you. “I treat a good number of teachers who are always taking care of other people, some of whom can’t even keep their doors closed during lunch; there is this barrage of constant interruption,” Koenig says. “I encourage them to go sit in their car so they can have the peace and quiet to eat their lunch, and really enjoy it. When you eat, you should be present enough to know when you are full and satisfied.”


Make long-term food decisions

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology explored the influence of mood on food choice. Across four experiments, researchers analyzed the impact of positive and negative mood cues, with findings that will make you a believer in the power of positive thinking. According to the study, “a positive mood increases the salience of long-term goals such as health, leading to a greater preference for healthy foods over indulgent foods.” Instead of using food as a source of in-the-moment distraction, positive thinking lets us play the long game in our daily food choice. We are able to focus on the impact that a healthy food choice has on our long-term well-being, and we’re satisfied by it. Conversely, negative mood cues hamstring that focus, and we crave indulgent foods as a means of immediate mood management. Not only that, but when we’re in this state, we eat the indulgent options to excess. The bottom line? Keeping your health front of mind can go a long way in preventing a bad mood food binge. Keep from faltering with these 7 science-backed tips to stop your strongest food cravings.


Make mindfulness work for you

In a 2017 study examining mindfulness as a tool to reduce emotional eating, researchers confirmed that the approach leads to a significant reduction in emotional eating behavior. Study co-author Carl Fulwiler, MD, Ph.D., who also serves as medical director for the UMASS Center for Mindfulness, cites the concept of disinhibition, and our ability to control it, as a key driver in the prevention of emotion-driven eating. “At its core, mindfulness is about being more aware of our emotions, and understanding how they influence our thinking and behavior,” Fulwiler says. “When applied to weight loss and weight maintenance, it can have a profound impact on an individual’s long-term success.” Fulwiler’s exploratory research reinforces earlier findings from a study by Brown University researchers about disinhibition related to eating behavior. “What they showed pretty convincingly is that the internal component, or what we think, has much more to do with long-term weight control than external factors such as office social situations.” That’s welcome news for those who work in environments where tempting food cues are unavoidable. It can also be an effective tactic in curbing stress induced splurges.

PR Image Factory/Shutterstock

Reduce triggers of emotional eating

Whether you love or loathe what you do, it’s undeniable that stress and work go hand in hand. “The combination of food being a low involvement choice and a stressful environment is what propels us select something indulgent—it makes us feel good,” Brumberg says. But how to recognize and stop the influence of stress on food choice? According to David Adler, MD, senior scientist for The Center for Health Solutions and Professor, Tufts University School of Medicine, one solution is cognitive behavior redirection. “First and foremost, you have to be aware of your automated response to stress, which manifests itself in numerous ways, including eating,” he says. “If you are feeling upset and eating is something you find helpful, you’ll keep doing it.” And you’ll likely continue feeding the stress beast until you shift that automated response to a healthier alternative. (Believe it or not, a single raisin can be all it takes to exert control over our automated response to overindulge.) “One of the simplest solutions is to make a list, where the left-hand column lists the positive things you can do to manage that in the moment stress, and the right lists negative alternatives,” he says. Not only will the action have absolved you of any knee-jerk induced munchies, but it can also lead to long-term positive change with regard to your default eating behaviors. Here are 7 mind tricks you can use to prevent emotional eating.

Golden House Studio/Shutterstock

Indulge in the occasional office treat

Perhaps the greatest news of all? Live a little! Besides making you a total buzz kill, restrictive eating does you no favors in the long run. If anything, the occasional cheat meal can help you sustain your long-term goals with respect to weight loss and weight maintenance. “It only makes you think of the things you’re not ‘allowed’ to have, and it sets you up to fail,” Brumberg says. Koenig, a self-professed former binge eater, concurs. “Depriving yourself of pleasure causes overeating,” she says. “If something’s on offer that you really love, enjoy it. Or take it home and eat it later. This whole idea that certain foods are forbidden just doesn’t work. Food is not a moral issue.” The key is keeping front of mind your long-term health and wellness goal. “It’s only problematic when ‘just this once’ becomes something we’re constantly telling ourselves,” Brumberg says. “Many office cultures include a cake for everyone’s birthday or after-work cocktails. Just be mindful of that and take part without caving into the social pressure to eat (or drink) more than you normally would.”