More than half (56%) of employed Americans who typically eat lunch during work hours struggle to eat a healthy lunch at work, and more than three-quarters (77%) say they're more likely to make healthier decisions at other times of the day if they eat healthy at lunch, according to a new survey from the American Heart Association, Dallas, Texas, and Aramark Corp., Philadelphia.

The survey was conducted online by The Harris Poll, Rochester, N.Y., among 907 employed U.S. adults aged 18 or older who say they typically eat lunch during work hours. The survey was conducted on behalf of the American Heart Association and Aramark as part of their joint initiative, Healthy for Life 20 By 20.

"Understanding what employees are eating for lunch on a typical workday and what factors influence their choices helps us develop strategies to improve dietary intake with multi-level approaches through food systems, communities and individuals," says Anne Thorndike, vice chair of the American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass. "The finding that healthier food choices at work may impact food choices throughout the rest of the day presents a unique opportunity for the workplace to have a positive influence on not only the employee's health, but also the health of the employee's family."

The survey of employed U.S. adults who typically eat lunch during work hours found that:

  • More than nine in 10 (91%) are interested in improving the healthfulness of their typical workday lunch with employees under 40 more likely to be extremely/very interested compared to employees aged 40-plus (65% vs. 55%).
  • More than four in five (82%) agree that having healthy food options at work is important to them and more than two in three (68%) value help from their employer in becoming healthier.
  • About four in five (79%) whose workplace has on-site cafeteria, foodservice or vending machines get food there at least some of the time.
  • Nearly nine in 10 (86%) prepare work lunches at home at least some of the time, with women more likely to do so than men (91% vs. 82%).
  • When eating an unhealthy lunch, employees under age 40 are more likely to be impacted at least a little bit by cost (91% vs. 79%) and choices of their peers or co-workers (75% vs. 50%) than employees aged 40-plus.
  • On a stressful day at work, about one in three (35%) say their lunch is less healthy than a typical day, with women more likely to say so than men (40% vs 32%).

Aramark developed Healthy for Life 20 By 20, a plant-forward initiative designed to boost nutrition across its menus in colleges and universities, hospital cafés and workplace locations. The initiative has resulted in a 15% average reduction in calories, saturated fat and sodium, and significant increases in fruits, vegetables and whole grains across those dining location menus.

"Aramark and the American Heart Association are proud of our shared commitment to help millions of people lead healthier lives," says Dan Wainfan, vice president, brand health, wellness and nutrition at Aramark. "Through this survey, and as part of extensive consumer insights gained throughout our Healthy for Life 20 By 20 initiative, consumers are emphasizing that health and wellness is top of mind every day. While they don't always make a healthy choice, they always want delicious, healthy choices available—at work and at home."

While employees who typically eat lunch during work hour cite limited availability of healthy foods (43%) as having a great deal/quite a bit of impact on eating an unhealthy lunch, more of these employees cite convenience (60%) and taste preference (54%) as having a great deal/quite a bit of impact on choosing an unhealthy lunch.

"Improving the nutrition content and reducing calories of classic favorites and typically indulgent menu items helps. Having more plant-based options to choose from at home and on menus helps. But, in the end, people still need to choose to eat healthier food. The good news is most people said they are interested in doing better," says Thorndike.

Survey methodology:
This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of the American Heart Association and Aramark from May 14-16 among 1,062 employed U.S. adults ages 18 and older, 907 of whom say they typically eat lunch during work hours.