Study finds late night snacking may hurt work performance

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A study from North Carolina State University found that unhealthy eating at night can make people less helpful and more withdrawn at work the next day.

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

Researchers defined “unhealthy eating” as instances when participants felt they ate too much junk food, had too much to eat or drink, or had too many late-night snacks.

From 97 full-time workers, researchers found that when people engaged in unhealthy eating behaviors, they were more likely to report having physical problems the next morning. These included headaches, stomachaches and diarrhea.

Along with physical problems, they were were also more likely to report emotional strains the next morning such as feeling guilty or ashamed about their diet choices.

The physical and emotional strains with unhealthy eating were, in turn, related to changes in how people behaved at work throughout the day.

Participants were more likely to report declines in “helping behavior” and increases in “withdrawal behavior.” Helping behaviors referred to helping colleagues and going the extra mile when they didn’t have to, while withdrawal behavior referred to avoiding work-related situations, even at the workplace.

“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 or how they’re eating, instead of what they’re eating.”

Cho added that companies can help address healthy eating by paying more attention to their employees’ dietary needs and preferences and address them, such as through on-site dining options, which can affect their physical and mental health as well as their work performance.