Your Food Generosity is Making Your Employees Sick and Costing You Money

A 5 Step Plan on How To Fix It!
The CDC (Centres for Disease Control) recently released some shocking data that may shed some light on the growing health crises of obesity and diabetes in the US and across North America.   
They found that US employees consume 1300 calories per week from food obtained from the workplace and that 70% of these calories were provided for free – either by the employer or from colleagues. These foods were mostly “empty calories”, high in fats and sugars, and were full of sodium and white flour.   
Pair this unhealthy eating with a sedentary workplace environment, and it’s no wonder obesity and diabetes rates are growing at epidemic rates.  The annual cost of obesity among full time employees in the US is estimated at $73.1 billion. The cost of diabetes in the US is estimated at $245 billion annually, with $20.8 billion towards lost productivity in the workforce.
Workplaces can no longer place the blame for poor health and soaring medical expenses solely on their employees when the employers are the ones plying them with free donuts, pop, and other poor food options.  However, this also puts a lot of power into the hands of employers to spearhead and facilitate changes in their offices and become a driving force towards improving the health of their employees. 
“Worksite wellness programs have the potential to reach millions of working Americans and have been shown to be effective at changing health behaviors among employees, reducing employee absenteeism and reducing health care costs,” said Stephen Onufrak, epidemiologist in the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We hope that the results of our research will help increase healthy food options at worksites in the US.” 
 Our Evolutionary Drive To Unhealthy Food 
The key to providing healthy food options at work is to understand why providing unhealthy options are so dangerous. Humans have an evolutionary drive to seek out foods that would have advanced our brain development and energy, specifically fats and sugars. These “highly rewarding foods” light up physiological signals in our bodies that lead us to consume the food beyond our need for nutrients and calories, and beyond the point of satiety.  This is why you can eat an entire large bag of All Dressed potato chips, but you will never over-eat a non-rewarding food like plain baked potatoes.  
Other factors that can affect poor food choices including: eating due to stress, boredom and lack of appropriate stimulation; sleep deprivation; and dehydration.   
Put an over-worked, under-slept, stressed-out employee in front of a box of donuts, and you will break any commitments that individual may have to healthy eating and weight loss.  They will eat one or more of those donuts even if they are not hungry, especially if their peers are all partaking in the unhealthy treat.  
5 Steps to a Healthier Workplace Food Culture 
Many workplaces provide food in the office as a “reward” to make their employees happier and have an impression of their employer as generous and kind, like a grandmother giving candy to her grandchildren.  Now that many employees are aware of unhealthy eating, and the popularity of healthy eating is on the rise, providing unhealthy rewards may not yield the results you’re seeking.  Instead they may think “that’s nice my work gave me donuts, but now I’ve cheated on my diet and have gained weight”, or worse “my work keeps bringing in donuts and I can’t say no, and now I have diabetes.” 
Millennials place particular importance on a healthy lifestyle and healthy eating.  Providing unhealthy foods at a lunch meeting may completely back-fire as a reward system for this ever-growing group of workers. 
Here are 5 steps to start changing your workplace food culture: 
Step #1: Take Inventory. Look at what food you offer to your employees. How many are sugary, fatty, salty?  How much is made with white flour?  Are there any whole grains?  Protein? Any healthy fat? How many sugary drinks do you offer vs other alternatives? Do you have a vending machine with chips and chocolates?  The biggest question to ask is: “If an employee is hungry or thirsty, what is the most convenient thing for them to grab? And how healthy is this option?” 
Step #2: Aim for Healthier vs. Healthiest. You don’t have to feel guilty at not providing the most healthy food to your employees.  They may not want to switch from donuts to apples. The key here is to have something HEALTHIER than the donut.  Provide foods that are still tasty (“rewarding”) but with less sugar and fat, more whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, healthy proteins and healthy fats.  
Step #3: Always Provide A Healthier Option.  Next to the box of chocolate glazed donuts, provide a box of whole grain banana nut muffins.  Along with the pop and coffee, have some Perrier and herbal tea. Avoid any situations where the only options are unhealthy ones.  Also be sensitive to potential special dietary needs – some of your employees may be gluten-free, paleo, keto, etc.  If you’re catering a breakfast meeting, along with the muffins, offer fresh fruit, oatmeal, yoghurt, granola and boiled eggs.  
Step #4: Know Your Motivation.  Why are these foods available in the office  Are they an incentive? A reward? A convenience?  Knowing why you are offering these foods can help you offer better options.  A reward (e.g., employee appreciation events) should be very tasty and feel like a “treat” – frozen yoghurt, dark chocolate, fresh smoothies, may be healthier options.  An incentive (e.g., staff meeting) should draw the widest audience, so should offer a wide selection, from healthiest, to moderately healthy, to less healthy.  A convenience (e.g., break room) should match how you think your employees would eat if they were at home, which is usually generally healthy – water vs pop; muffin vs donut; granola bar vs chocolate bar. 
Step #5: Broadcast Your Culture Change. It’s a bold move to think outside the box and break the workplace junk food mold.  Let your employees know that you care about their wellbeing and let them know changes are coming.  Ask them what they would like to see offered in the break room and in the vending machines.  Advertise your new healthier options, while reassuring them that the old treats will still be available.   
Healthier Office Food Ideas 

Unhealthy Food/Drink  Healthier Alternative 
Skittles / Candy   Dark Chocolate Covered Dried Fruit (E.G., Brookside) 
Chips  Snap Pea Crisps / Kale Chips / Nuts / Popcorn 
Chocolate Bars  Granola Bars / Granola Balls (E.G., Made Good) 
Donuts  Whole Grain Muffins  
Pop  Perrier / Real Fruit Juice / Smoothies 
Coffee  Herbal Tea  

 Looking to provide healthier snacks in your break room?  How about some hummus and crackers; salsa and corn chips; a basket of fresh fruit; apple slices and cheese or peanut butter; mixed nuts and dried fruit.  There are so many healthy and delicious foods available, think outside the box – your employees will appreciate it. 
By Jaty Tam ND., Medical Director at Well Street.  
Well Street helps organizationtake a proactive approach to total wellbeing in the workplace. Don’t wait to react; instead companies can integrate health and wellness prevention strategies to empower wellness and drive employee engagement and happiness. Learn about our most popular total wellbeing onsite programs and seminars
2 J Occup Environ Med. 2010 Oct;52(10):971-6. doi: 10.1097/JOM.0b013e3181f274d2.