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Free Donuts? How to Say, "No Thank You!"

Free food at work? A tip for thinking twice

Last week while I was sitting in the green room of a news station waiting to talk about how to be an emotionally intelligent eater, I had the opportunity to conduct another sneaky food experiment (see my previous one). Actually, this was an observational study. Here’s what happened.

Like many green rooms, there was a TV, coffee, and comfortable chairs. A delivery man entered and put down a tray of donuts and left. Within a matter of moments, people began entering the room, one at a time, over the next hour. They were in search of the newly delivered donuts!

Like many of us, food at work is a significant saboteur! Sometimes donuts and muffins are a fun treat and a perk of the job. But when they are there every day, this can be a challenge.

What was interesting was that each person who entered the room felt compelled to explain their motivation out loud. Keep in mind that I only smiled and said, “Hello” when each person entered. So, I began my observational study. I silently kept track of what people said as they entered (those who did speak). Note that these individuals likely didn't know what I was going to talk about in the interview. It was the behind the scenes crew. Here were the themes.

The Rumor Mill: “I hear there are donuts!”

Freebie Seekers: “Wow, free donuts!”

Hungry: “Great, donuts! I’m so hungry.”

Bloodhounds: “I could smell donuts all the way down the hall.”

Good Samaritans: “This one is for my friend” (left with two donuts).

Desperation: “WHERE are they?” (frantic search around).

Host: “Would you like a donut too?”

Lamenter: “Ugh, Why do they have to have donuts? This ruins my diet!”

Take a moment and ask yourself, which statement you would you likely say if you encountered free donuts?

What explanation do you think I heard the most often? The answer is “free donuts!” We are very attracted to free food whether we are hungry or not. The next time you encounter donuts or other food at the office, listen to the explanation you give to yourself or someone else about why you are eating them.


Do you scold yourself or try to scare yourself away? It may be tempting to focus on the downside of having a donut now including things like, "If I have one now, I'm going to shoot my eating for the whole day" or, "This is going to make me gain weight."

Here is a different approach to consider and try today. Instead of focusing on the negative consequences, highlight to yourself the BENEFITS of skipping the donut right now if you truly aren't hungry (ex. I will feel good about this choice or I won’t get all sticky). Research indicates that we are much more motivated by what we will gain right now than trying to scare ourselves by what we happen later. I talk more about this concept in my new book, Eat.Q.

Free donuts at work are never easy, but they are possible to navigate! So, the next time you enter a lunchroom with donuts or muffins, think about his article and how you might approach them in a new way.

*Gerend MA, Maner JK. Fear, anger, fruits, and veggies: interactive effects of emotion and message framing on health behavior. Health Psychol. 2011 Jul;30(4):420-3. doi: 10.1037/a0021981.

Dr. Susan Albers is a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and the author of six books on mindful eating including Eat.Q: Unlock the Weight Loss Power of Emotional Intelligence. She has been quoted in the New York Times, Self, O Magazine, Shape, Fitness and on the Dr. Oz show.