How Google Fights Obesity

(Photo: Nicolas Nova)

(Photo: Nicolas Nova)

Last year, Google realized that its employees were eating too much free candy — M&Ms, specifically.  So the company conducted a little experiment, and carefully tracked the results. Cecilia Kang, writing in the Washington Post, summaries:

What if the company kept the chocolates hidden in opaque containers but prominently displayed dried figs, pistachios and other healthful snacks in glass jars? The results: In the New York office alone, employees consumed 3.1 million fewer calories from M&Ms over seven weeks. That’s a decrease of nine vending machine-size packages of M&Ms for each of the office’s 2,000 employees.

The company has conducted similar experiments in an effort to reduce consumption of sugary drinks and encourage employees to consume less calories in the company’s cafeterias.  “With a company as big as Google, you have to start small to make a difference. We apply the same level of rigor, analysis and experimentation on people as we do the tech side,” says Jennifer Kurkoski, a member of Google’s HR team.

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  1. Eric M. Jones says:

    Chocolate covered insects in vending machines could be a win-win.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 2
  2. Steven says:

    That sounds like a Dan Ariely experiment. Now only if we could do something like this at the school I teach at.

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  3. dontpanic says:

    How google contributes to obesity – Hello Google Kitkat??

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0
  4. Nikki says:

    And not even a mention of Richard Thaler?

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
  5. Robert says:

    If the goal is to fight obesity, then is providing free snacks (calories) isn’t the answer.

    1 cup M&Ms: 1023 calories
    1 cup (shelled) pistachios: 640 calories
    2 McDonalds Cheeseburgers (for comparison): 600 calories

    Maybe slower with pistachios than M&Ms but spare calories are spare calories. What you don’t burn you store.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 5
    • James says:

      And the pistachios are usually highly salted…

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      • James says:

        I also wonder what the effect would be if they replaced M&Ms, which are typical American “chocolate” – that is, mostly sugar & fat, with just a trace of chocolate flavoring – with good, high-cacao dark chocolate, which has been shown to have many health benefits.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Who says that they’re “spare calories”? For the people I know in Silicon Valley, a handful of nuts or a granola bar is called “lunch”.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 26 Thumb down 1
    • Robert says:

      I think a better experiment would be to perhaps give calorie counts / nutritional information on the snack containers. When you inform people, they make better decisions.

      If people realize they’re consuming a meals worth of calories worth of nuts/figs/m&ms they’d probably consume less.

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      • Aaron says:

        People know that candy has a lot of sugar. Posting nutritional information usually doesn’t change things much, because you’re just telling people what they already know.

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      • pawnman says:

        Well, we have a baseline, now that fast food restaurants are required to post calorie counts on their menus. Has there been a substantial decrease in the number of Big Macs purchased since the law went into effect?

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    • sukosaki says:

      Although a cup of M&Ms might be easier to eat than Pistachios, putting the latter in place of the former is still a better decision. The calories from the nuts are going to be used at some point, right? M&Ms would be considered “empty” calories.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  6. Baughman says:

    What a dumb study. What’s the net effect on calorie consumption? Is it positive? Figs and nuts are very high calorie. This policy could have had the unintended affect of increasing obesity.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 10
    • Kaushik says:

      Although people have thumbed you down, figs and nuts ARE high calorie.
      They’re healthy, yes, but only in moderation – like 5 nuts a day.

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4
      • Enter your name... says:

        There’s more to a food’s healthfulness than just the calorie count. Unlike candy, nuts have protein, good oils, vitamins, and fiber. Nuts are a low-glycemic food, which means that they have a low effect on blood sugar and keep you from feeling hungry so quickly.

        In fact, the many benefits of nuts outweigh their calorie count, and this is one reason that good dieticians oppose using calorie counts as the primary measurement of a food’s value. You actually are better off eating 600 calories of nuts than 500 calories of candy.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 1
      • Baughman says:

        Obesity is caused by consuming more calories than you burn. Period. Just google “twinkie diet” for a great example of this.

        Calorie consumption and calorie burning are the only relevant measures when talking about obesity. In the US we are generally not generally deficient in vitamins, minerals, and proteins, so we’re not talking about fighting malnutrition here. It’s obesity we’re talking about.

        So if the net calorie effect of this policy is that people consume fewer calories through M&M’s and more calories through nuts and figs, the net effect is fatter people with nutrient-rich urine, and a net loss in the fight against obesity.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3
  7. Kaushik says:

    So, EACH employee ate M&Ms that would fill about 9/7 = 1.28 vending machines EACH week?
    If a vending machine has, say, 4 shelves, each employee ate M&Ms that would fill 1.28*4/7 = 0.73 shelf EACH DAY?

    Which would also mean that Google kept 2000 * 1.28 = 2560 vending machines stocked per week or 365 vending machines stocked per day. That would be a few roomfuls of M&M vending machines only, not including any others.

    That is unbelievable. They may be taking the M&Ms home for others.

    Another thing is that this experiment is not correctly controlled. Two conditions were forced.
    1. Making the M&M container opaque.
    2. Introducing healthy consumption.

    How do we know that point 2 made the difference and not point 1?

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 11
    • Enter your name... says:

      A vending machine-size packet is the size of packet that is usually seen in vending machines, not a packet that is the size of a vending machine.

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  8. Shane L says:

    Excellent intervention, clever and straight forward.

    …Though this article makes me want M&Ms.

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