Less productive at work? Study finds late-night snacks may be to blame

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If you spend your post-work evenings digging into a bag of chips and are less helpful at work the next day, a new study has pointed to your snack as the culprit.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have found that unhealthy eating behaviors can not only make you less likely to assist your colleagues, but more withdrawn.

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“For the first time, we have shown that healthy eating immediately affects our workplace behaviors and performance,” Seonghee “Sophia” Cho, corresponding author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at NC State said in a press release. “It is relatively well established that other health-related behaviors, such as sleep and exercise, affect our work. But nobody had looked at the short-term effects of unhealthy eating.”

Researchers had 97 full-time U.S. employees complete a set of questions three times per day for 10 straight workdays. Questions about participants’ physical and emotional well-being were answered before each workday. They also answered questions about what they did at work at the end of the workday. Finally, before bedtime, they answered questions pertaining to their post-work eating and drinking practices.

The study defined “unhealthy eating” as cases when participants believed they’d consumed too much junk food. Participants’ feeling as if they ate or drank too much or that they’d eaten too many late-night snacks were also defined as “unhealthy eating.”

Results showed that participants were more likely to report having physical problems the morning after engaging in unhealthy eating. These issues included headaches, stomachaches and diarrhea. Emotional strains such as feelings of guilt or shame in their diet choices were also displayed. In turn, that led to a decrease in “helping behavior,” which is doing a task at work that isn’t within their job description — essentially, going the extra mile. They also exhibited “withdrawal behavior,” which is dodging work-related situations although they’re in the workplace.

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People considered emotionally stable, meaning less emotionally volatile and better able to cope with stress, didn’t have as many adverse effects from unhealthy eating. Researchers also discovered their workplace habits were less likely to change when they reported physical problems or emotional strains.

“The big takeaway here is that we now know unhealthy eating can have almost immediate effects on workplace performance,” Cho said. “However, we can also say that there is no single ‘healthy’ diet, and healthy eating isn’t just about nutritional content. It may be influenced by an individual’s dietary needs, or even by when and how they’re eating, instead of what they’re eating.

“Companies can help to address healthy eating by paying more attention to the dietary needs and preferences of their employees and helping to address those needs, such as through on-site dining options,” she added. “This can affect both the physical and mental health of their employees – and, by extension, their on-the-job performance.”

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