Sneaking around to search the fridge for a midnight snack? Do not do that. A recent study finds that unhealthy eating behaviors at night can make people less helpful and withdrawn the next day at work.
“For the first time, we’ve shown that healthy eating immediately affects our behaviors and performance at work,” says Seonghee “Sophia” Cho, corresponding study author and assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina State University. “It is relatively well established that other health-related behaviors, such as sleep and exercise, affect our work. But no one had looked at the short-term effects of a poor diet. ”
The study, Is a healthy lifestyle important? A Daily Journal Study on Unhealthy Eating at Home and Behavioral Outcomes at Work, is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The paper was co-authored by Sooyeol Kim, assistant professor at the National University of Singapore.
Basically, the researchers had two questions: Does unhealthy eating behavior affect you at work the next day? And if so, why?
For the study, the researchers had 97 full-time employees in the United States to answer a series of questions three times a day for 10 consecutive work days. Before working each day, study participants answered questions related to their physical and emotional well-being. At the end of each work day, participants answered questions about what they were doing at work. In the evening, before going to bed, participants answered questions about their eating and drinking behaviors after work.
In the context of the study, the researchers defined “unhealthy eating” as examples where study participants felt they had eaten too much junk food; when participants felt they had eaten or drunk too much; or when participants report having too many late-night snacks.
Researchers found that when people engaged in unhealthy eating behaviors, they were more likely to report physical problems the next morning. The problems included headaches, stomach aches and diarrhea. Additionally, when people reported unhealthy eating behaviors, they were also more likely to report emotional strain the next morning – such as feeling guilty or ashamed of their food choices. These physical and emotional stresses associated with unhealthy eating were in turn linked to changes in the way people behaved at work throughout the day.
Essentially, when people reported physical or emotional strains associated with a poor diet, they were also more likely to report a decrease in “helping behavior” and an increase in “weaning behavior”. Helpful behavior at work is about helping co-workers and going the extra mile when you don’t have to, such as helping a coworker in a task that is not your responsibility. Withdrawal behavior is about avoiding work-related situations, even if you are at your workplace.
The researchers also found that emotionally stable people – that is, people who are better able to cope with stress because they are less emotionally unstable – suffered fewer side effects from a poor diet. Not only were emotionally stable people less likely to experience physical or emotional strain after eating poorly, their behaviors at work were also less likely to change, even when they reported physical or emotional strain.
“The bottom line here is that we now know that a poor diet can have almost immediate effects on performance at work,” Cho says. “However, we can also say that there is no one ‘healthy’ diet and that healthy eating is not all about nutritional content. It can be influenced by an individual’s dietary needs, or even by when and how they eat, rather than what they eat.
“Companies can contribute to healthy eating by paying more attention to the dietary needs and preferences of their employees and helping to meet those needs, for example by providing on-site dining options. This can affect both the physical and mental health of their employees and, by extension, their performance at work. “
The researchers also highlighted a variety of research questions that could be addressed in the future.
“One confounding variable is that the way our questions were worded, we can capture both unhealthy eating behaviors and unhealthy alcohol drinking behaviors related to alcohol,” Cho says.
“This is something we will want to talk about in the future. And while we focused on the evening diet, it would be interesting to watch what people eat at other times of the day. Are there specific elements of the diet that affect behavioral results – like sugar or caffeine content? Can poor nutrition have positive effects, for example when people eat comfort foods to cope with stress? It promises to be a rich field of study. “
Originally posted in news.ncsu.edu. The report has been edited for its length and style.