Why It’s Hard (But Not Impossible) to Resist Free Food

You started the workday with a nutritious, filling breakfast. You’ve got a healthy lunch and healthy snacks prepped and ready to go—your insurance against fast food and vending machine temptations. When you arrive at the office, you head to the kitchenette to stow your food in the fridge, feeling good about your choices so far … and then, you spot the donuts.

Whatever the occasion— Karen’s birthday or Alicia’s wedding shower or Gary’s promotion—it is likely to be celebrated with sugary, high-calorie treats. And even if you’d never purchase them for yourself, there’s just something about free food that seems to weaken your willpower.

"Passing up free donuts or bagels at work is hard for many people because it plays on our behavioral impulses," explains Nicole Magryta R.D.N., author of "Nourish Your Tribe: Empowering Parents to Grow Strong, Smart, Successful Kids." "There are different reasons that account for people’s draw toward free food, but emotions play a large role."

The "herd effect" can be powerful here, she points out. Many people have the mindset of, "If everyone else is eating it, it can’t be that bad for me." Plus, if you work in a particularly stressful environment, the addition of unhealthy foods can lead to emotional eating.

And, of course, there’s the practical line of thinking, as free food appeals to our frugal nature. "Being offered an unexpected gift in a world where nothing is free creates a joyful experience," Magryta notes. It’s the same reason it’s so tough to pass up the "free" bread or chips and salsa at a restaurant.

Some of us may come from a place where food was scarce, as well, notes health coach Liza Baker. "Ask yourself if you’re really in a place in your life where you don't know where the next meal is coming from," she says. "If you grew up in that sort of environment, forgive yourself for continuing to believe that story."

How to Avoid Mindless Binging at Work

Summer Yule, M.S., R.D.N. points out that shared work treats are typically grain-based offerings—think cookies, cakes, donuts, muffins and the like—that are ultra-processed, hyper-palatable and extremely easy to overeat, particularly when they are conveniently available.

"Occasional treats can have a place in any healthy eating plan, but if there is a celebration every day, it could easily sabotage your efforts toward wellness unless you turn down some items," Yule says.

Rather than grabbing a snack every time they're available in the break room or kitchen area, consider taking a more intentional approach to your eating. Tap into your hunger cues and implement strategies that will keep you from snacking for the sake of snacking, and you'll stay on track with your goals while staying true to your best self. The next time a tempting treat lands near your desk, try one of these easy and effective strategies for refusing any free food.
  • Drink plenty of water. When you’re well-hydrated, you won’t confuse thirst for hunger, and will be less vulnerable to the "gravitational" pull of crave-inducing foods.
  • Find a work buddy to help keep you accountable. Chances are, there are others in the office who are also committed to steering clear of unhealthy eats. Start an office-wide group chat or email chain to keep your goals at the front of your minds when temptation strikes.
  • Keep a food journal. "This technique can help you to stop and think about whether you want to be eating what you are about to grab," Yule says. "Are you hungry? Bored? Stressed? The journal can help you identify when you are most likely to mindlessly grab snacks and [teach you to] be more mindful about these situations."
  • Be curious about your cravings. If you are tempted by unhealthy foods—or if you give in and indulge in them—Baker says it's important to examine potential triggers. What's your level of hydration? How much (or little) sleep are you getting? How much (or how little) are you moving your body? "If you can gradually address what’s lacking in these areas, you may find your craving for sweet food lessens," she explains.
  • Bring your own healthy snacks. When you have a more nutritious alternative on hand, you can still participate in celebrations without succumbing to the break room donuts. Yule suggests sticking with snacks that are higher in protein and/or fiber, as these tend to be more satiating.
  • Distance yourself from temptations. "Unhealthy foods are more likely to be consumed the closer they are in proximity," Magryta explains. "Either move the food or move your location."

How to Politely Pass Up Free Food

It can sometimes feel like turning down food is an insult to the person offering it, but there are ways to gracefully pass without seeming rude or unappreciative. In fact, your response could model a healthier path for others.

"Tell the person the item looks great, and then politely decline without feeling guilty," Yule suggests. "Another tactic is to tell them you'll try some in a little while. Often they will not follow up, but if they do, you can tell them you enjoyed it—you may have only enjoyed it visually, but no need to specify!"

Baker says another effective approach is to share with others that you are on a journey to health. "Once it's out there, others will hold you accountable," she notes. "You may even inspire others to join you!"

If the free food push becomes a persistent problem, Baker suggests having an office-wide conversation about what's put "in the trough." Others may be just as interested in the nutritional content of what’s on offer.

When we struggle with turning down free food, Baker notes, it's easy to lay the blame at the feet of our weak willpower or lack of self-discipline, but she says it’s best to look at the situation with curiosity instead of judgment. "Our stories have a powerful hold over our minds and our actions, and it can be really helpful to tease them out."