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Chocolate bar for lunch? Is this an 'occupational hazard'?

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You're working late, and eating dinner from a vending machine yet again.

Could your diet of Twinkies and Cheetos be a job hazard?

If you're a shift worker, it could well be, according to the medical journal PLoS Medicine.

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An editorial in this month's issue of the journal makes a case for thinking about unhealthy eating as a new occupational health hazard. It highlights research that shows an association between shift work and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

While a disruption of circadian rhythms (which regulate one's metabolism) and a negative impact on sleep are contributing factors, workers' eating patterns "are obvious targets for intervention," the editorial says.

According to a press release, "Shift work is notoriously associated with poor patterns of eating, which is exacerbated by easier access to junk food compared with more healthy options."

The editorial points out that shift work is expected to become more common as the realm of work increasingly extends around the clock. And shift work, it says, has the potential to speed up the progression of the global epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

The editorial notes that employers and legislators have taken steps to reduce workers' exposure to tobacco smoke, suggesting they should tackle unhealthy eating in a similar manner, and make it easier and cheaper for workers to eat well. One workplace, the Cleveland Clinic, has taken a lead in this area, it says.

In an effort to keep health-care costs in check, the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio took a hard line to improve the health of its employees, The Washington Post reported earlier this year. It fired physicians who refused to quit smoking. It eliminated almost all fried foods, sugary sodas and trans fats from its campus. It offered free fitness and stress-management classes to its workers. And it began keeping track of its employees' blood pressure, lipids, blood sugar, weight and smoking habits. If any of these are "abnormal," the clinic requires that a doctor certify that the employee is taking measures to control them or else they don't receive an insurance rebate.

Employers are already on the hook for protecting the health and safety of their workers. Should that responsibility include their diets too?

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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