On-the-job snacking Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2008

According to a 2007 Harris Interactive poll, 58 percent of employees in the U.S. said their companies were “very active” or “somewhat active” in offering employees information about exercise and healthy eating. However, 75 percent also said that the vending machines where they work mostly contain junk food, such as chips, cookies and candy bars.

When a company sends mixed messages like this to its employees, it greatly diminishes the chances the employees will actually follow a healthy eating regimen. The work-place must reinforce healthy eating by offering employees a wide variety of food choices.

“It’s not that a company needs to impose a regimen of healthy eating on its work force,” says Sandra Carpenter, MS, Med, LDN, RD, CDE, BC-ADM, CNSD, the weight management/nutrition program manager at UPMC Health Plan. “Any healthy eating program initiated at work should be voluntary, but employers also have to understand that what happens in the workplace can go a long way toward leading people toward making more healthy choices.”

Smart Business spoke with Carpenter about the importance of healthy eating.

Why is healthy eating a concern in the work-place?

According to a 2007 survey by Nationwide Better Health, 72 percent of employees eat an unhealthy snack (chips, candy, etc.) at work at least once a week, 27 percent eat an unhealthy snack three or more times a week, and 22 percent of workers ages 18 to 27 eat one more than five times a week.

Why should an employer be concerned about healthy eating in the workplace?

A 2008 survey by Kronos Optimal Health shows that 65 percent of all employees are either overweight or obese. Obesity has been estimated to cost U.S. companies about $13 billion each year. But, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contends that companies can save from $1.49 to $4.91 for every dollar spent on health promotion and disease management programs.

There are many positives that can result from encouraging your employees to eat healthy and adopt a more active lifestyle. These positives not only benefit the employees’ overall health but also help the employer’s bottom line because healthy employees cost employers much less. Healthy eating helps reduce the risk of heart disease, improves energy levels, reduces anxiety and stress, and leads to a higher self-esteem.

Historically, the workplace has been a place where unhealthy food options (primarily from vending machines) have dominated. When employees do not have healthy choices available to them, it is less likely that they will follow healthy eating and snacking habits. By improving the offerings, you improve your employees’ chances of eating healthier at all times.

How can an employer determine what healthy foods to offer employees?

If you are not sure about whether a certain food is healthy, you should check the Nutrition Facts label to identify calories, fat content and sodium content in each serving. Most Americans need only 40 to 60 grams of fat each day and should avoid saturated fat and trans fats.

Employers should look for foods with specific labels. Foods labeled as ‘low sodium’ contain no more than 140 milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving. Most Americans eat far more than the 2,300 mg sodium limit recommended by the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans and The National High Blood Pressure Education Program. Most foods containing more than 400 mg of sodium per serving should be avoided. Foods with at least two grams of dietary fiber are considered good sources of fiber.

How do you recommend employees eat healthy snacks at work?

As an alternative to vending machine snacks, such as potato chips (303 calories, 19.6 fat grams), why not have healthier snacks available at your desk? Trail mix, nuts or seeds, dried fruit, high-fiber and low-fat crackers, low-calorie hot chocolate, or even some granola bars or breakfast cereals are fine. If you wish, you can bring in some perishable snacks, such as low-fat yogurt with fruit or low-fat cottage cheese with fruit.

Beverages are often overlooked when it comes to making healthy choices. Often employees reach for soft drinks that contain high amounts of caffeine and are high in calories. Herbal tea, diet soda, mineral water and flavored water are good choices. Juices may contain sugar but those that are 100 percent fruit juice are healthy.

How does one introduce healthier food choices to employees?

If your meetings require food, look to avoid serving less-than-healthy foods. For instance, instead of doughnuts or pastries, you could substitute whole-grain mini bagels or low-fat bran or fruit muffins. Offering diet drinks, water and small quantities of 100 percent fruit juice instead of regular soda is another healthy alternative.

Vending machines should also include healthy choices. Fresh or dried fruits are great options, along with low-calorie, low-fat healthy snacks, such as granola bars, 100 percent juices, pretzels, nuts, seeds, cereal boxes and yogurt.

SANDRA CARPENTER, MS, Med, LDN, RD, CDE, BC-ADM, CNSD, is the weight management/nutrition program manager at UPMC Health Plan. Reach her at (412) 454-7662 or carpentersk@upmc.edu.