It’s lunchtime and you’re finally able to take a break. Having had no time to pack a sandwich this morning, you head to Pret and grab a wrap, some crisps and a can of Coke. You treat yourself to a cookie because why not, you’ve got a long afternoon ahead of you.
As you return to your desk, you get stuck into your food. But no sooner have you taken a bite, your colleague leans over to have a look at what you’re eating. He eyes up the cookie and asks if you’re still running every day, before making a vague comment about how he’s trying to cut down his sugar intake. Suddenly, you feel self-conscious about what you’re eating – and wish you’d taken your lunch break outside.
The next day, you remember to bring your own lunch and pack a salad. And at lunchtime, the same colleague asks if you’re on a diet.
Many workers have a hard time escaping that one irritating person who loves to give feedback on their lunch. But commentary on what other people are eating isn’t just annoying, it can be damaging too.
In a culture where women are often judged on their weight and appearance at work, food-shaming is a serious issue. Size discrimination in the workplace is a very real and often overlooked problem that disproportionately affects women’s mental health and their careers.
According to research by LinkedIn, workers classed as obese are paid £1,940 ($2,457) less per year than their colleagues, with women classed as “overweight” or “obese” — according to their BMI — receiving £8,919 less on average each year than their male coworkers.
Almost a quarter of workers (21%) who are overweight felt they had been passed over for a job or a promotion because of their weight. In addition, more than half of those classed as plus-sized said they felt they had been left out of a team because of their weight.
And when we’re judging people on what they eat at work, it’s possible we’re also making assumptions about other aspects of their personalities or lifestyles too. In 2017, 500 hiring professionals were shown a photo of an overweight woman by researchers at the job site Fairygodboss and asked if they would hire her. Only 15.6% of them said they would — and 20% said they thought she was “lazy.”
Talking about what we eat can seem like a safe topic in the office, compared to religion or politics. But even the most well-intentioned comments can have a negative impact on workers, particularly for 1.25 million people in the UK who have an eating disorder. Commenting on someone’s food is more than just rude - it can be incredibly triggering.
We can rarely tell what someone is going through and what they are dealing with at any given moment, or what they have dealt with in the past. We don’t know if a colleague struggles with disordered eating or has worked hard to overcome body confidence issues, so we shouldn’t pass comment on what they are eating. If a coworker brings in their own lunch instead of eating out, it may be that they are on a tight budget or have dietary requirements – issues they may not want to talk about in the office.
And it goes without saying that cruel comments can have a serious impact on mental health and self-esteem, which can have a knock-on effect on someone’s work.
We spend a huge amount of time at work and for many of us, a break is sacred. According to a survey of 1,000 workers by the recruiter Reed, 68% of people don’t take the full amount of time they are allocated at lunch - and the average lunch hour has decreased to just 22 minutes since 2012.
A lunch break is more than just a chance to refuel, it’s also an opportunity to step away from work and switch off - instead of answering intrusive questions or dealing with unsolicited comments. So what should you do if you find yourself being harangued by a busy-body colleague about your eating habits?
To keep the peace, the best thing to do is to ignore them or respond without letting them know they’ve made you feel self-conscious. If you can, move elsewhere. But if they are persistent - and you’re feeling brave – take them to one side and privately tell them they are making you feel uncomfortable. And remember, what you choose to eat is nobody else’s business.