27 Oct 2014

Memo on Office Food 

I have always advocated for stocking the office with healthy snacks, like fresh fruits and vegetables. Just as important as stocking healthy snacks, in my opinion, is keeping the space free of unhealthy snacks. I remember a long debate with Vaughan about allowing M&Ms in the office.

My philosophy around stocking food is nicely summarized by a phrase Matt D once related to me, “I’m not a healthy eater, I’m a healthy orderer.” As soon as I heard this, it resonated, as a “hack” I have found useful in my own experience: to avoid eating junky food, just don't have it around. Likewise, I have noticed, that when unhealthy food is around (eg, when I visit my parents’ home) or when there are French fries on the table, I’ll tend to eat more of them than I would like to. So the strategy is just to keep the unhealthy options at an inconvenient distance, and it works surprisingly well.

Years after I had developed this strategy and heard it summarized thusly by Matt, I came across The Power of Full Engagement (nice Youtube summary). Over dinner, a friend recommending this to me explained the hypothesis that every decision you make during a day drains from a finite pool of decision making energy you have. The management takeaway is that you should only focus your finite mental resources on making the decisions that matter, not the trivial decisions of no consequence. If you’ve ever heard of executives that wear the same outfit every day, they’re applying this concept. (I think Obama does this.)

Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, explores a similar theme:

My ability to bring a train of thought to a conclusion is impaired accordingly. At the highest speed I can sustain on the hills, about 14 minutes for a mile, I do not even try to think of anything else. In addition to the physical effort of moving my body rapidly along the path, a mental effort of self-control is needed to resist the urge to slow down. Self-control and deliberate thought apparently draw on the same limited budget of effort.


Several psychological studies have shown that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and by a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation. Imagine that you are asked to retain a list of seven digits for a minute or two. You are told that remembering the digits is your top priority. While your attention is focused on the digits, you are offered a choice between two desserts: a sinful chocolate cake and a virtuous fruit salad. The evidence suggests that you would be more likely to select the tempting chocolate cake when your mind is loaded with digits. System 1 has more influence on behavior when System 2 is busy, and it has a sweet tooth.

Kahneman shows evidence that working on a “demanding cognitive task” makes people more likely to yield to a sweet tooth temptation, and for me, it definitely feels like the inverse is true: constant exposure to temptation reduces my capacity for demanding cognitive tasks. Every time I walk past the trail mix, I need to think, “ooh, tasty trail mix, should I eat some of that?” (1) This is a difficult decision to resist, as many unhealthy snacks have addictive sugars and salts in them and (2) even if you are able to successfully resist, you deplete some of your decision making reserves that could be used on something more important.

As I was contemplating a more strict snack policy for the office, I got to thinking about prohibition and whether or not it is a similar strategy. I think it probably applies some of the same principles, actually, but differs in execution. Banning anyone from eating or bringing unhealthy foods into the office would be a more accurate comp to prohibitionist policy, whereas simply not stocking the office kitchen with unhealthy foods is more similar to not allowing people to buy drugs / alcohol with food stamps / subsidized funds.

In addition to eliminating unhealthy foods from the office, I think we also have a responsibility to educate our employees about important nutritional concepts, eg:

Sugar: the Bitter Truth
The Skinny on Obesity

We should post these vids in the kitchen, or have them preloaded on iPads left in the dining area.

Thoughts? Email me: andrew.kortina@gmail.com

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