Break out of the vending machine rut

Although man has battled machine since the industrial revolution,
humans have yet to find a way to defeat the dreaded “snack attack”
from the vending machine.

It can be difficult to fight a foe that shoots Snickers, and many people just do not. According to the National Automatic Merchandising Association, Americans spend more than $21 billion on food and
beverages from vending machines.

“Well, I think that what we tend to do is go with what is convenient and easy,” said Rebecca Rogers, professor of psychology at Augusta State University. Rogers specializes in health psychology.
The majority of sales are to adults chained to a cubicle. Vending machines — sometimes called automats — offer a fast and handy option to American workers who seem to need it. A survey by office furniture designer Steelcase found that 55 percent of desk potatoes take 30 minutes or less for lunch every day. Fourteen percent choose not to halt their hard work. In fact, time is the number one reason survey respondents cite when getting their meals from the machine.

“They don’t have time to pre-make stuff,” Rogers said. “They don’t have time to get healthy food.”

The noon hour is sometimes called the “lunch crunch” in competitive urban areas. Some employers only provide a half hour for lunch. Others order in sandwiches and pizza for their workers. Some restaurants quit opening for lunch.

Takeout, delivery and lunch catering businesses are booming. Even in workplaces where an hour lunch is allowed, 57 of those surveyed say they skip it due to a changing work environment and pressure to perform.  Since only 50 percent of all workers bring lunch with them on a given day, the other half of desktop diners struggle to be “snack wise” and not pound foolish.

“I guess one of the things is to ask yourself: Are you hungry or are you craving something in particular. ’Cause if you’re hungry, the M&Ms aren’t going to cut it,” Rogers said.

This internal dialogue may be getting easier. In response to the rising cost of health insurance, many companies are looking for a way to combat a health care price tag for obesity that has reached $12 billion.

“The bottom line is you want your workers to be healthier,” said Michael Hinson, sales and marketing director for Five Star Food Service, the fifth largest company in the industry. Five Star covers the Southeast and supplies vending machines across the CSRA.

Anticipating a rising trend, the organization recently stepped up its existing “Moderation” program and rolled out a revamped system of healthier choices they call “Lifestyle.” The program includes 150 items, from baked chips to low-carb wraps, which are available in their machines. Consumers are eating it up.

“Whereas in the past you might see two to three percent are healthier items, in Augusta I would say we’re trending eight to 12 percent of total sales as far as snack machines,” Hinson said, and that number could reach 20 percent.

But standing face-to-face with the enemy can be mind-boggling.

“It would be nice if they had it where you could see the labels from the vending machines,” Rogers said, but she recommends that making healthy choices convenient should be a first line of defense.

Keep craving-savers nearby. Rogers cited the grapes in her mini-fridge as an example. Other good choices are yogurt and low-fat pudding. But when the stash is depleted or the chocolate monster makes its monthly appearance, a little  indulgence is not verboten.

“Ideally, it would be great if we could teach people to eat both — so that you’re not depriving yourself but that you’re still getting your nutrition,” she said, and choosing something like low-fat cookies will help to achieve that balance.

Knowing what effect the food you choose will have on your body is essential to avoiding unnecessary trips into the hallway. Items high in refined sugars — such as chocolate and sodas — boost energy for less than an hour. Then the body experiences a “crash” that can feel worse than before snack time. Instead, choose foods that are high in protein or complex carbohydrates such as whole grains. Hinson mentioned smoothies, low-fat granola bars and baked chips.

Rogers said a good start can be made with a little planning.

“Basically, we kind of start out with realistic goals and expectations,” she said. A mere five to 10 percent drop in weight is all that is needed to feel better and see health improvements such as lower blood pressure and easier breathing. Once goals are place, consumers should devise a plan.

Finally, be aware of what influences your decisionmaking. The food industry spends an estimated $33 billion a year on ads and promotions to keep certain products on the tips of tongues while healthier options often sit neglected in the crisper.

“You don’t see ads for apples and bananas,” Rogers said.

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