Nutrition at Work: Opportunities to Improve Employee Wellness
Easy to implement strategies can make the workplace a nutritionally positive experience. Offering healthy food alternatives and involving employees can jump start healthy changes.
Health care costs continue to rise for both employers and employees with profits and paychecks shrinking to cover basic health care benefits. One way to address this economic challenge is to encourage and help workers get well and stay well, and healthy eating is a cornerstone of this endeavor. Depending on which reports you read, each dollar a company invests in workplace wellness programs saves between $1 and $13, with a median return of $3.14 on reduced health care costs and improved productivity (1). From a business perspective, there are additional benefits besides improved employee health and decreases in healthcare costs, such as reduced absenteeism, enhanced work performance, improved job satisfaction, and employee retention.
Workplace wellness programs can take shape in various activities including fitness, weight loss, stress management, smoking cessation, and healthy eating. Perhaps one of the easier changes to make is by making healthy food choices available at the workplace. Beyond the initial thought of the vending machines, there are multiple strategies worksites can implement to improve nutritional habits and the quality of foods eaten on site.
Make Meetings and Celebrations Healthy Events
Whenever food is brought in for an event, include a healthy option such as a fruit or vegetable tray. Give workers the opportunity to make healthy choices. Nothing is worse than attending an employee luncheon and the only option is pizza and soda with no other alternatives in sight, especially for those trying to manage their weight. If the event is being catered, request healthy, lower calorie selections from the menu. Also offer a variety of beverages besides sugary sodas. Water or unsweetened teas are always a good substitution.
Control Portion Sizes
Bigger is not always better, especially when it comes to waist size. For example, the size of a muffin has more than doubled since the 1950s, from three ounces to six and a half ounces (2). Before serving breakfast pastries, cut them in half, or even quarters. This will leave more room for fruit on the plate. Speaking of plates, supply smaller plates. This will help reduce waste, and if people want seconds, they will go back.
Company pot lucks can be another way to encourage healthy eating habits. Try pot luck themes based on:
- Local foods currently in season
- Salad bar with everyone bringing a different ingredient
- Recipe challenges to convert favorite pot luck dishes into healthier versions
- Taste tests, something as simple as identifying different types of apples or comparing the original recipe to the healthy version
Gluten Intolerance and Food Allergies
Have options available for those who may be gluten-intolerant or have other food allergies. The more common food allergies among adults include peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish (3). If you bring a dish that contains these products, indicate that information on the plate. Ask if there is a location on the “buffet” table that you can put items that contain these ingredients. Sometimes only a trace amount can trigger a severe allergic reaction for someone with sensitivities to certain ingredients.
Environmental Challenges: Vending Machines and Candy Jars
Work places should be an environment to enhance good nutritional habits and changing the types of foods that are easily accessible is instrumental. Approximately 15% of workers don’t take a lunch break and may be turning to vending machines to satisfy their mid-day hunger pangs and cravings (1). Most vending machine companies can accommodate requests for healthier choices in their machines, such as pretzels, trail mixes, nuts, cereal bars, or other healthy alternatives (4). Discourage the morning donut box in the lunchroom and try replacing it with instant oatmeal packets, fruit, or yogurt.
Get rid of the candy jars. According to a study by Wansink, Painter and Lee (2006), women ate between 3.1 and 7.7 chocolate candies, per day, depending on where the candy jar was located in the office (5). Though there are proven health benefits associated with chocolate, this mindless candy consumption can tack on an extra 5-12 pounds per year!
Be creative to find additional ways to make healthy food choices an easy option at the worksite. Lead by example and include all staff, from the top down, to take part in these changes. Additionally, educate employees on how to make healthy nutrition choices (6). Over time, these low cost strategies may impact the cost of health expenses and overall employee wellness.
By Stacey Penney, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, FNS
- Bray, IM. (2009) Healthy employees, healthy business: easy, affordable ways to promote workplace wellness. Washington, NOLO.
- Meals Matter-Meal Planning Made Simple. Portion distortion: serving sizes are growing. Retrieved March 1, 2015 from http://www.mealsmatter.org/Articles-And-Resources/Healthy-Living-Articles/Portion-Distortion.aspx.
- Pub Med Health. Food allergies. Retrieved May 14, 2012 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001820/.
- Physical Activity and Nutrition Branch, Chronic Disease and Injury Section, Division of Public Health N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Eat smart North Carolina: guidelines for healthy foods and beverages at meetings, gatherings, and events. Retrieved March 1, 2015 from http://www.eatsmartmovemorenc.com/HealthyMeetingGuide/HealthyMeetingGuide.html
- Wansink B, Painter JE, Lee YK. The office candy dish: proximity’s influence on estimated and actual consumption. International Journal of Obesity (2006) 30, 871–875. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803217; published online January 17, 2006.
- National Academy of Sports Medicine –NASM, Fitness Nutrition Specialization, Chandler, AZ.