How Google Improved Employee Food Habits
The generous employee benefits at Google have been widely discussed. Free food, cookies and candy are available around the clock. It was soon noticed that new hires at Google tended to gain weight, and the company started to get a reputation for impairing the health of its employees. Something had to be done about this problem
Just as Google continuously optimizes its search engine, an attempt was now made to optimize the food offered to employees. Perhaps it would have been easiest to simply take away the least healthy options. But a different path was chosen — to help employees change their eating behavior.1
Order Is Important
Google first made some simple observations of how the placement of food in the employee cafeterias affects dietary habits.
If three alternatives of an equivalent food item were arranged on a shelf, the majority chose the alternative in the middle.
If several products were in a row on a buffet table, the employees ate more of the product that was first in the row.
If the salad bar was placed right by the entrance, employees ate more salad.
We simply eat more of what is within nearby view and reach. These insights seem rather obvious, but they hadn’t been taken into account. Now knowledge was used to place healthy products in the best locations.
Google noted further that if loose candy or cookies were right beside the coffee machines many took something sweet in passing when they got coffee. Simply moving the candy and cookies four meters further away resulted in a calorie reduction that corresponds to one-half kilo per employee per year for every daily cup of coffee.
So Google didn’t take away any unhealthy products. They simply moved them to less visible locations. And people lost weight.
Order in Our Own Refrigerators
We can apply these principles in our own refrigerators. By placing fruit and vegetables on a shelf at eye level (and not in the drawers at the bottom), we will eat more of them. By covering the pancakes we will eat fewer of them compared to if they are on an open plate in your field of vision.
Seven Kinds of Cookies
Google also observed that employees ate more candy if it came in many different colors. This is because people like to test all varieties. Perhaps you’ve noticed yourself that you eat more cookies if there are many kinds to choose from at a party.
Google solved the problem by putting loose candy in packages that all looked the same. Through this simple measure the employees consumed 58% less candy. You can use this result yourself for the opposite effect. If you put many different colors in your salad you will probably eat more of it.
The Size of Plates
The size of plates also turned out to play an important role. You can apply this yourself by reserving the big plates at home for parties and using smaller plates every day to reduce portion size.
Health Information at the Right Moment
Google finally investigated how they could best inform their employees about healthy habits. It turned out that if health information was given at the time of serving in the cafeteria, employees ate 74% more vegetables compared with if an informational email was sent about the benefits of vegetables.
You can test this yourself. Try putting a piece of paper with your relevant question on the refrigerator door or other suitable place where you will be reminded of the question at the right moment.
Let Your Questions Facilitate Everyday Decisions
We make hundreds of choices every day and the majority are more or less automatic. You don’t have time to actively think through every little choice about what you should and shouldn’t eat. That is why your basic attitude is so important — it affects what automatic decisions you make.
Personal questions that stimulate you to reflect on your living habits and your basic attitudes can help increase your self-awareness and prepare you for “the heat of the moment.”
By planning grocery shopping, food preparation and placement of food at home it will be easier to stick to healthy habits. Otherwise it is easy, like Google’s employees, to take something unhealthy automatically when we’re tired, hungry or stressed.
How can I organize my food to eat more healthily?
Feel free to take it out in your daily life or perhaps you've got something even better?
1. Chance Z et al. How Google Optimized Healthy Office Snacks. Harvard Business Review 2015.