Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Studies Show You End Up Eating What Your Co-workers Eat (for Better or Worse)

co-workers eating lunch at their desks

The other day, when I was in the kitchen reheating some leftovers for lunch, I started talking to a colleague about the Whole30 program, an increasingly popular eating challenge that he’d just finished. By cutting out sugar, grains, alcohol, and dairy, he found that he slept better, had more energy throughout the day, and just generally felt healthier. I doubt my own lunch was scandalous as far as calorie counts go, but it certainly wasn’t as clean as what he was getting ready to eat.

My office, I’ve noticed, leans toward the healthy side of things. While some people head out for lunch, many people bring their own. I see things like salads, soups, and avocado toast being prepared and consumed on the regular. There’s nary a soda can in sight, and if we have smokers, well, I don’t know who they are. I consider myself an everything-in-moderation eater, and I personally can’t get behind any kind of special diet, but I’m, nonetheless, interested in hearing how cutting out carbs or gluten or sweets works for others.

According to a recent piece in Quartz, this interest in what our office mates are eating is widespread, so much so that companies in certain cities have even taken to providing employees’ lunches—particularly meals that are meant to promote mindful eating.

This idea of mindful eating may be contagious. While it’s possible that my entire office has always favored salad over burgers, there’s a strong possibility that people are modeling their co-workers’ food choices. It could be that no one ever wants a Coke, or it could be that you don’t see it as an acceptable choice, so you temper your desire for it and opt for a seltzer instead.

In the article, Tegan Cruwys, a psychology professor at University of Queensland in Australia, believes in the power of social influence as far as our eating choices are concerned, even though she’s found that people are reluctant to realize how big that influence really is. Cruwys attributes that to the stigma around mimicking other people. After all, we’re supposed to be self-aware adults, capable of making our own decisions. You might be hard-pressed to admit that Todd’s hard-boiled egg breakfasts have gotten you off of the Lucky Charms, but it’s not the admission, but rather the action that’s important as far as your health goes.

The way I see it though, there’s nothing wrong with copying your co-worker’s eating habits if it means you’re eating more vegetables or choosing an apple over a candy bar, especially if you don’t have time to exercise.

If, like me, you prefer a more moderate way of eating—yay, big bowls of pasta and warm oatmeal raisin cookies one day, chicken and rice the next—you’ll no doubt be happy to hear that the social influence goes both ways. It’s not all elimination diets, juice cleanses, or lemon-dressed greens; if your office surprises you with a pizza lunch, I bet there’ll be a line to get a slice as soon as the boxes are delivered. And as you bond with your colleagues over the piping hot cheese and pepperoni pies, you’ll feel little guilt, even if you make a mental note to make tomorrow a salad day.