There aren’t a lot of people who hold a PhD in quantum chemistry from Cambridge University and drive a delivery van around Manhattan, but that’s what Nadja Pinnavaia does every Monday.
Pinnavaia is the founder and CEO of Euphebe, a new plant-based kit diet program that’s based on a whole foods, “veganesque” menu. The foundational Euphebe plan, which includes four weeks of lunches and dinners, eschews bread or pasta made with white flour or other refined grains, and added sugar. Its recipes are inspired by what Pinnavaia calls “satiating, tasty, peasant food” and are designed to keep blood sugar levels steady for several hours. Farro risotto and sweet potato and black bean burritos are among the crowd pleasers.
Pinnavaia says she wants to help people escape what she calls “the crappy food cycle,” which has been linked to chronic inflammation in the body and conditions like obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, depression, and Alzheimer’s. (The company’s name is a play on,“You feel better.”) “I want to make it as easy as possible for people to have all of their meals be highly nutritious, satisfying meals. That way you have the proper metabolic triggers in the body,” she explains.
In what could prove a clever twist, the Euphebe business model combines the popularity of boxed chef-made meal kits and a growing interest in plant-based eating with a less prominent trend: the transformation of the office into a site for mindful eating habits. She is not targeting individuals scattered around the region or the country, but rather office “teams.” Her van makes stops outside major corporate towers in New York, including Goldman Sachs, the J. Crew headquarters, and Google.
The goal is to make the Euphebe experience a community effort, turning lunch at work into a kind of support group whose members resist the office cereal bar and corner burger joint in solidarity. Early adopters have found out about the program through word of mouth. In time, Pinnavaia would like to see companies subsidize the nutritional intervention for employees, or offer it alongside other free meal options.
Euphebe isn’t alone among businesses that see offices as the locus for diets and healthier eating. Hundreds of employers around the country already cover the costs of on-site Weight Watchers meetings and Weight Watchers tells Quartz that demand for corporate partnerships has risen in the past five years. Another start-up, Cater2Me, wants to connect offices with the best local food in eight major cities. LeanBox, a Boston-based firm, has designed a self-serve kiosk that brings “radically fresh” choices to within walking distance of employee cubicles. Vending machines that sell yogurt or apples have been around forever, but these company-subsidized smart fridges are stocked with fresh fruit cups and meals like chicken tikka masala.
LeanBox co-founder Shea Coakley tells Quartz that he and his partner were planning to open a traditional brick-and-mortar cafe but discovered a huge underserved market in office employees desperate for healthy, fresh food at work. He credits access to data as a key reason for the change. Consumers now know more about nutrition and disease than ever before, and the risks from eating a poor diet have become impossible to ignore.
Another major factor at play: work is where we spend most of our time, and work and life are merging, say experts like Tom Haak, founder of the HR Trends Institute in the Netherlands. He reports that eating together with one’s officemates is becoming more common and so are company-provided meals. In the US, new research shows that 80% of us don’t leave the office for food but are eating at our desks.
Long the norm in the startup scene, the perk is being adopted by other types of companies as part of a larger trend to pamper employees. “We once saw that companies didn’t provide anything to their employees. You have work, and you have life—they’re separate,” he explains. Now sharing a meal is coming back and it’s directly influenced by social norms in the office.
This shift yields significant health implications. Over decades, studies have shown that the way peers eat affects the food decisions a single person makes. In 2013, the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published a meta-analysis which found that people tend to eat higher or lower calorie foods (pdf)—and higher or lower quantities of food—depending on the information they’re given about what others are consuming.
Tegan Cruwys, a professor of psychology at University of Queensland in Australia, and author of a much larger meta-analysis published by the journal Appetite in 2015, says that social influence and modeling behaviors play a bigger role in food choices than people realize and will admit to. “When asked to list the factors that influence the way they eat, people tend to write all kinds of different things,” she reports, “but social behavior always comes last.”
We may shield ourselves from awareness of the way we mimic others—which often includes taking bites just after someone else does—partly because we have access to our own thoughts, says Cruwys. We can tell ourselves that we ate something because we were hungry. But there’s also a stigma around social influence, she adds. People prefer to believe that they are making self-guided decisions. In reality, modeling is so powerful that it is not moderated by age, weight, or hunger, according to her analysis.
Environmental nudges of the type Google is famous for in its free company restaurants are also part of the social norming process. The range of foods that are available to a population, the amount of variety, and standard portion sizes are all going to help establish the norms for eating behavior, says Cruwys. So too will “choice architecture,” a strategy sometimes used to make the default or most visible option the healthiest. (This month, Reebok International took the practice to its limit by banning all white breads, sodas, pastas and fried foods from its corporate headquarters in Canton, Massachusetts.)
According to Cruwys’s analysis, however, such nudges work best when they’re aligned with social identities; people are more likely to follow nudging signals when they come from a collective of people considered peers. The thinking is: “I’m willing to be nudged by people like me. I’m less willing to be nudged by an authority figure or, perhaps, management.”
It turns out that our internal mimickers are also picky choosers of models, says the data, and will go out of their way to monkey the right model depending on the situation.
At work, a person will likely be paying attention to his or her professional identity. Later the same evening, the same worker might feel more aligned with fans of the same sports team at a bar. Wing night becomes impossible to resist despite intentions to stop eating calorific bar food. “We are systematically and strategically attending to people who tell us something meaningful about who we are, even if we are not wholly conscious of the process,” says Cruwys.
Foods selected by a disliked “out-group” member can be a potent driver of one’s choices too, in this case telling a person what not to eat. Let’s say you judge the sales team as ethically-challenged, and they’re all big on salad. You might choose a jumbo cheese dog for lunch and sabotage your health without realizing it. This effect is seen is all kinds of decisions we make, including workout habits, according to studies.
“The broader message here is that we pay a lot of attention to the biological cues, how hungry we are or how much self-control we have, but we need to pay more attention to the social influence,” says Cruwys.
This could mean surrounding yourself with people who are eating healthy foods, or going so far as to sign up for a program like Euphebe or Weight Watchers together.
It should mean thinking about the sway you hold, too: Don’t bring cupcakes to the office if you don’t want to skew the norms.
Gerrie McManus, the owner of a boutique investment firm in Manhattan, who once worked with Pinnavaia at Goldman Sachs, was game to sign up for the Euphebe pilot program because of the history of heart disease in her family. She says positive peer pressure helped get her through the month without her daily diet sodas, which she eventually gave up completely. She recalls that Pinnavaia’s coaching (through text messages and online communications) was a boon, and the ease of not having to think about what to eat every day was a huge plus, but, she says, the social dimension of the program was particularly useful in staying motivated.
“We all sit around to eat every day here, and being on the same plan was exciting. We talked about what we ate for dinner the night before and how we liked it and what we added to it. Or we talked about how much weight we’d lost—and we all lost significant weight,” she explains. (McManus lost 12lbs. and her internist of several years raved about her improved blood work.)
The camaraderie kept everyone honest, too, she reports, though social norms were tested: “No one would have audacity to show up with a burger when everyone else is eating Euphebe… Actually, two guys did once, and I thought, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ But after a while, we didn’t care.”