You are what you eat

Written by: Sharon Gethings Posted: 08/10/2018

BL58_nutrition illoWhat role do businesses have to play in making sure that their staff eat healthily, and what are the possible costs of not doing so?

You know how it is – you’re doing your best to eat well and stick to a diet, but your naughty colleagues just keep on bringing in biscuits, cakes and all sorts of other goodies that you can’t resist.

Wellness in the workplace is an integral part of many firms’ corporate social responsibility these days, with the focus often on mental health and stress management. With the cost of poor mental health to the economy standing somewhere between £74bn and £99bn per year, this seems to make perfect sense. 

However, this focus means that good nutrition as a key to wellness is often overlooked – which is surprising, considering the obesity crisis in the UK. 

Dr Sarah Brewer, Medical Director at Healthspan, is a former GP and hospital doctor who now specialises in nutritional medicine. She says: “Even though we’re a manufacturer of vitamin, mineral, herbal and other supplements, Healthspan’s main message is that diet should always come first when maintaining health.” 

She also brings up a pertinent point: “Nutrition and mental health arguably go hand in hand – you help one, you can help the other.”

What’s more, our diet can have a direct impact on productivity levels, in the same way that mental health issues can. Recent research at the California Institute of Technology shows that certain bacteria in the gut play a part in producing serotonin, which causes tiredness. 

Indeed, the digestive process itself can be tiring: your body only has so much energy to go around, which is why we often feel sleepy after eating. Altered levels of peripheral serotonin have also been linked to diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. 

When and what you eat can also affect energy levels and mood. For example, an overabundance of carbohydrates – typically found in bread, starchy and sugary foods – can cause the body to produce lots of insulin, which floods the brain with serotonin and other sleep hormones such as tryptophan. No wonder we feel tired after a big bowl of pasta for lunch. 

Our diet can also play havoc with our circadian rhythms, which govern our natural internal clock and dictate when we feel most alert. The more you align your diet with this clock, the more you’ll be able to harness your full potential during the day. 

Who’s responsible?

Clearly, there’s a strong link between what we eat and how productive we’re going to be at work. So, it makes sense that we should eat in a way that optimises our workplace performance. Right?

Dr Bob Gallagher leads occupational health at Queen’s Road Medical Practice in Guernsey, which provides a range of medical services to local businesses, including the finance and legal sectors. 

“Occupational health statistics show that if you’re obese, you’re likely to have lots more illness and worse sickness absence. If staff can lose weight, it reduces the likelihood of chronic illness such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and osteoarthritis.

“At Queen’s Road, we bring in fruit for staff twice a week at both our sites – but we still have the chocolate and crisps, as staff want that option. Forward-thinking companies will engage with staff to encourage healthier lifestyles. Diet in and out of work is a critical part of that.”

This is the major question: if nutrition can have an impact on the workplace, as outlined above, just how much should an employer impose rules regarding what staff can and can’t eat while at work?

Workers often bring in biscuits, sweets and cakes as snacks – and grab store-bought sandwiches for lunch. But in light of the rise in obesity around the world, should such items be banned?

“Sharing birthday and other celebrations is part of the bonding process that encourages a cohesive workforce,” says Brewer. “If people bring in their own food, they should be allowed to make their own choices based on helpful information rather than be told what they can and can’t do.” 

So, it seems that giving employees helpful advice on nutrition might be one way forward – and a good start could be making sure they’re actually eating something to begin with.

Some people don’t eat lunch at all. Despite 75 per cent of UK workers in a 2017 YouGov poll for caterer Sodexo knowing how important what they eat at work is for their productivity, 65 per cent said they’ve skipped meals because they’ve had no time to eat, leading to low blood sugar levels, which can make you tired and grumpy. 

“Stable blood sugar levels are key to a sustained level of energy throughout the day,” says Beverley Le Cuirot, Founder and Director of WellBeing At Work in Jersey and a qualified health coach with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN). 

“I advise people to avoid starchy carbohydrates such as bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals, which are disruptive to blood sugar levels. This is particularly the case with a sandwich-based lunch – and a sugary drink compounds the effect.”  

As an alternative, Le Cuirot suggests blood sugar-stabilising foods including meat, fish, eggs, seeds, nuts and non-starchy vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, carrots, kale, peppers and spinach. 

She has seen at first hand the impact of serving such ingredients at many conferences and events she’s organised, where a quiet word with the chef has led to a food selection that’s helped keep energy levels up throughout the afternoon.

“Plan ahead and prepare a healthy lunch to take in,” says Le Cuirot. “It’s also an idea to eat a healthy snack mid-to-late morning to help curb hunger pangs. A handful of nuts tends to work best for most people.” 

Staying in the office all day can have other negative effects – missed lunches are, in effect, unpaid overtime. Research by printer reseller Printerland showed that, on average, British workers spend 93 hours every year working through lunch breaks.

“People eating at their desk aren’t getting a proper break,” says Sarah Brewer. “They would benefit from leaving the work environment for a walk or just to get a breath of fresh air.”

Supply and demand

So what, if anything, is the average company doing to encourage healthy eating? The Sodexo survey found that 82 per cent of workers would like to see their workplace offer a range of food throughout the day.

“If food is provided by the business in, say, a work canteen – then yes, healthy options should be offered,” says Brewer. “Staff canteens should provide healthy snacks such as fresh juices every week, fresh fruit daily and breakout areas for people to eat lunch. They could also introduce nutrition training for new starters, as well as other schemes – we have a 99 per cent staff discount on Healthspan products, for instance.”

Le Cuirot helps organisations with their employee wellbeing strategies, including healthy eating. “There are positive ways through communications, awareness and training to encourage employees to introduce treats and snacks that are delicious yet healthy,” she says.

But she believes firms should only ban foods if they adversely affect the work environment for clients and colleagues – such as strong cheeses, exotic fruits or spicy dishes – or if the organisation has a certain policy. One example is WeWork, which recently announced it was going meat-free in a bid to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Le Cuirot has studied more than 100 ‘diets’ and follows the IIN’s ethos of ‘bio-individuality’, which states that no one diet works for everyone. Each person has unique needs, and bio-individual diets are now proven to lower the chance of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and more.

So encouragement and increased opportunity to eat healthily are the way forward. And if staff are still reluctant to change their ways, perhaps give them a little incentive to avoid eating ‘al desko’. 

A recent survey of 1,000 office workers found that one in 10 admit to only cleaning their desk once a month, and a further nine per cent said their workstation never gets disinfected. Yet the average desk harbours about 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat.

It’s enough to put you off your lunch.

Leading by example

BL58_nutrition illoThe desire for increased productivity has led to numerous businesses offering company wellbeing programmes. One of these is Healthy Performance based in Southam, Warwickshire. In 2017, 79 per cent of employees it screened went on to make lifestyle changes.
   Oli Barnard, the firm’s Senior Health Assessor, says: “We offer a variety of online and onsite health screening options that enable us to offer tailored advice to companies. These include detailed management health reports that staff can use to benchmark data and compare annually to track changes.
   “We worked with a small manufacturing firm in Banbury that’s made a big push at improving nutrition for staff, running in-house workshops, especially for its catering staff. We worked closely with the night shift workers. 
   “There was a lot of interest and uptake of courses and things really improved – healthy snacks are provided, a big salad bar was installed. We’ve noticed that when senior staff get involved, there’s a real knock-on effect – the management led by example, stepping away from their desks for lunch. 
   “Generally, we find that the younger generation is fantastic with nutrition. New tech companies often have fully stocked kitchens, including breakfast foods in case people miss this important meal. 
   “Here at Healthy Performance, we practise what we preach. We have free fruit in the office and a little kitchen for food preparation. We encourage everyone to move around and get out – we even have a table tennis table. Our CEO is very good and has introduced walking meetings à la The West Wing.” 

 


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