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Hospital cafeteria food: How it’s displayed influences workers’ choices, study shows

hospital cafeteria
Photo: andresr/iStockphoto

Boston — Labeling cafeteria food with “healthy choice” indicators, along with placing healthier options more prominently, can positively influence long-term dietary changes among health care workers, say researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital.

For their study, the researchers tracked the food purchases of 5,695 hospital workers at MGH cafeterias. After a three-month baseline period, the research team labeled food in the cafeteria with “traffic-light”-style symbols indicating their health value – green labels for the healthiest food, yellow for less healthy and red for least healthy. They also moved healthier options to more accessible locations.

Results showed that the workers achieved a 6.2% reduction in calories per purchase over the two-year study period, including a 23% decrease in calories from the least healthy foods.

The workers’ average purchase during the baseline period contained 565 calories. That total was reduced by 19 calories after one year and 35 by the end of the study period. The largest calorie drop among food purchases was for “red-light” items, which decreased by 42 calories per transaction.

“That indicates that not only were employees’ consuming fewer calories at work,” lead author Anne N. Thorndike said in a July 10 press release, “but also that they were improving the quality of the calories they were purchasing.”


The researchers recommend broader implementation of healthy eating interventions in large workplaces to help address obesity levels and chronic diseases.

The study was published online July 10 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open.

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