"Oh, maybe I'll take just half..."
My coworkers often announce that they intend to eat "just half" of something. They usually make this pronouncement to no one in particular, while breaking off part of a cookie or bisecting a slice of cake.
Today, however, my colleague held up half a pumpernickel bagel, and started straight-up bagel-shaming herself to me. This was completely unprompted; I hadn’t even said "good morning" to her yet.
"I wasn’t going to have one this morning, but I caved," she said, looking sheepish, like she's expecting judgment.
I've noticed that my coworkers often justify their eating habits, especially around me. The truth is, I couldn't care less what they eat, but I don't love being seen as some Sheriff of Healthiness around the office. I do try to eat healthily, but that’s a choice I make for me, not to make them feel bad about themselves. Still, trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle in an office environment can be strangely difficult.
In my first job after college, I worked in an office that provided free bagels and spreads on Mondays and Fridays. My department even got bagels on Wednesdays too. My coworkers would always get excited whenever there was free pizza, cake, or doughnuts in the kitchen. And despite their regularity, the bagels prompted a super-positive response too. But personally, I dreaded all of it.
I mean, they may be tasty, but I think we can all agree that bagels aren’t considered part of a clean diet.
Having a healthy lifestyle has always been a priority for me. After college, I had this goal of looking like fitness guru Kayla Itsines. You know, of Sweat with Kayla? She of the most pristine abs ever? Yeah, that was my dream. Three years later, I’m glad to say that I’ve changed my focus to just being and feeling healthy, and I’m just trying to maintain my body instead of constantly trying to slim down.
Regardless of my goals, having access to free unhealthy food five days a week was (and still is) a huge obstacle in my life. In the beginning, especially, it was on my mind every single day when I went into work and faced what I call the paradox of free office food.
Free office food is widely viewed as a nice perk. One survey indicates that employees are much happier in the workplace when free snacks, coffee, and drinks are available; it’s well-known that all the hip tech companies offer free food to their employees; and younger job seekers are widely thought to factor in free food when searching for jobs… even if they’d really prefer a collaborative work environment and increased transparency.
For the average 20-something who isn’t spending their weekends counting their money (that’s what rich people do in their spare time, right?), free food in the office really can be great for your bank account. It was for me, especially during that first job. I was provided with breakfast—or lunch, depending on when I felt like eating that bagel—three times per week.
But the bagels, while free, still came with a price: weight gain and fatigue. After a few months, I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror at all… and more importantly, I didn’t like how I felt. Eating bagels that frequently made me feel sluggish, and my self-confidence took a hit because I didn’t like how my bagel body fit in all the new clothes I bought for the job.
So I decided to knock it off. I started restricting myself entirely from free office food and snacks.
Two things happened. I started cooking more, which was time-consuming and kind of awful at first. At the time, I was a terrible cook, and to make matters worse, I lived in a crappy apartment with a broken oven. But I did it anyway. I also became even more miserable at the office around all that tasty free food.
Once you decide to restrict yourself from something, you start thinking about it all the time. Who knew?
When the bagels arrived, they were placed directly behind my desk. Every time I got up, temptation was right there, staring me in the face. It drove me crazy. I wanted to dump all the bagels in the trash and tell the HR department to order a damn fruit basket instead.
My coworkers applauded my willpower when I opted for a Chobani yogurt instead.
"You’re so good, Talia," my coworkers would tell me, as they smeared thick layers of gorgeous, rich strawberry cream cheese onto their toasty sesame bagels.
I hate when we assign words like "good" to healthy eating and "bad" to unhealthy eating. When will that end? It’s such a judgmental way of looking at our food choices, and that judgment doesn’t only go one way.
The praise turned quickly into subtle taunting—especially from supervisors. They’d see me eating something that wasn’t a bagel or slice of pizza at my desk, and roll their eyes. They’d make sarcastic comments like, "Talia’s apparently the healthiest person in this office," or the super-appropriate, "Are you on a diet?"
I was in a lose-lose situation, and sometimes I caved. If I indulged in a bagel for my second breakfast, I’d bolt to the gym after work and make myself "run it off." It was a dangerous cycle to be trapped in, especially when I was already trying to attain a body that probably wasn’t a great fit for me.
I’ve worked in a handful of offices now, and everywhere I go, people comment on how "good" and "healthy" I am. When some people say it, they’re speaking out of jealousy, while others are just intending to be supportive. But I really wish people would stop commenting altogether.
I don’t want to be told to "live a little" and just eat the damn bagel.
I don’t want to be praised for my healthy choices.
I just want to eat my fresh fruit and home-cooked lunches in peace, without people giving me unwanted attention—good or bad—for it.
After a bunch of experimentation in the kitchen, my cooking skills improved a lot. I’ve also figured out what snacks to pack for work—things that travel well, like carrots with hummus or peanut butter, sliced bell peppers, unsalted trail mix, or fresh avocado on whole grain crackers. I’ve learned how to crack the code for keeping up my healthy lifestyle while working in an office full of temptation, which involves packing lunches and snacks I’m actually excited to eat, like simple burrito bowls, baked salmon with veggies, or my famous sweet potato and black bean hash… all of which are much tastier than soggy salads stuffed into mason jars.
Cracking that code took a few years of trial and error. Yeah, of course I still want a slice of pizza or a bagel sometimes. But when I eat them, I don’t feel great about myself. Free office food, in my experience, is never so amazing that it’s really worth the extra calories. It’s not exactly like digging into a burger, fries, and a chocolate shake at Shake Shack... which I still totally treat myself to once a month.
And mostly, I’ve learned to just ignore my colleagues’ comments and recognize that they’re coming from a place of insecurity, not a desire to make me feel self-conscious.
I really hope that more workplaces wake up and start investing in healthier food choices, rather than just encouraging their workforce to gain weight with weekly free junk food. I think this would lead to less guilt, fatigue, "bagel-shaming," and judging... and bring about a company full of energized, happier, healthier people instead.
Talia Koren is an influencer marketing specialist who genuinely wants to help people in their 20s get their lives together. She also loves cooking and runs the meal prep blog Workweek Lunch. Keep up with Talia on Instagram and Twitter @thetalillama.