Employers Get Serious About Feeding Workers Healthier Food

By James Daly
Tribune Interactive

Tech startups and giants such as Google and Facebook may provide employees with all the healthful coconut water and seaweed snacks they can handle, but if their employees are reaching past the good stuff and just scarfing down corn chips and Diet Coke at their desks all day, all is not well.

Garbage in, garbage out, as the programmers say.

Studies show that 70 percent of Americans 20 and older are overweight; more than one-third (38 percent) are obese.

In the late 1970s, just 15 percent of Americans had reached obesity. In a generation, the average amount of daily calories people consume has increased dramatically, and much of that added intake comes at work, a place where perpetual grazing and hours of sedentary activity are the norm.

That has significant downsides for both personal and psychological health. A healthy meal can make anyone feel inspired and productive; a crummy one leads to fatigue and stress.

Obesity is associated with increased absenteeism and reduced productivity while on the job, which some call presenteeism. Add it all up, and obesity results in $1,429 higher annual health care costs for people who are obese, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As a result, employers have a keen incentive to keep their staff healthy. That often begins with what they eat.

In the past decade, free meals and beverages have become a standard perk at many companies to lure the best talent in highly competitive markets.

Free meals offer a good return on investment. Consider an engineer at a high-flying tech company, who pulls down a salary of $150,000.

If you can get that code jockey to arrive early for breakfast, or eat lunch at her desk or stay past 6 p.m. for the goat curry; that’s a couple of hours of extra work a day. Multiply that by thousands (or tens of thousands) of employees and that’s a big productivity bump.

A growing number of companies including Microsoft, Google, Potomac Electric Power Company, Tyndall National Institute research lab and GEICO, are hiring experts known as “dietary interventionists” to help them ensure employees are not overdoing it at the commissary whether the food is free or not.

The cafes at Microsoft, for instance, offer an array of healthy dining options, as well as a “Real Easy Wellness” food labeling system to help hungry employees spot which foods are the most nutritious and which are empty calories.

Similarly, Google stocks its cafes and kitchens with nutritious meals that are color-coded for easy identification. The search engine giant also provides smaller plates to help with portion control, as well as on-site cooking classes, so employees can prep healthy meals at home when they finally break free from the office. Other companies offer everything from individual dietary counseling to companywide online nutrition tracking and meal planning services.

GEICO’s dietary intervention project was particularly ambitious. Researchers with the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine teamed with the insurance giant to show that office workers can lose weight, lower blood pressure and reduce absenteeism if the company provides healthy low-fat vegetarian alternatives in the company cafeteria. They specifically targeted employees with a body mass index of 25 or above who had Type 2 diabetes.

“People generally want to be healthier, but sometimes they don’t know where to begin,” said Dr. Neal Barnard, a Washington, D.C., physician and principal investigator of the study. “If the employer supports those healthy goals, it’s a real gift.”

In the first 22-week study, participants were offered a low-fat, plant-based diet that included vegetables, hummus, green salads and black bean chili.

They also got cooking demonstrations and educational sessions led by doctors and dietitians, so they could change their cooking habits at home.

The PCRM monitoring staff was also lean: Only one or two instructors were needed for every 50-100 participants. But the impact was substantial: Participants lost an average of about 11 pounds, two lost more than 40 pounds each, and missed fewer hours at work.

In a second 18-week experiment, nearly 300 GEICO employees from 10 regional offices throughout the country moved to a diet high in vegetables, fruits, fiber, legumes and whole grains. They, too, attended weekly support meetings, took classes in healthy cooking, and even toured the grocery store to understand how to find the good stuff.

The results of the study were encouraging. Participants lost an average of 10 pounds, lowered their LDL or “bad” cholesterol by 13 points, and improved blood sugar control. Participants claimed improvements in productivity as well as a decrease in anxiety, depression and fatigue. Did the approach to healthy living stick? Hard to say. There was no follow-up on these shorter trials, but in a longer GEICO study that lasted more than two years “the weight (of the participants) remained off long-term,” Barnard said.

There has been some skepticism in the medical community about the long-term benefits and cost-savings of broad-based employee wellness programs for weight loss, nutrition, mental health and anti-smoking.

The National Bureau of Economic Research recently reported on a year-long wellness program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which included nearly 5,000 self-selected participants.

The researchers didn’t find significant causal effects of treatment on total medical expenditures, healthy behavior or employee productivity in the first year. What the agency found was that the self-selected group was already in better shape before the study began and spent $1,574 less per year than non-participants on medical expenditures.

Barnard remains enthusiastic about these programs. “If employers are wondering ‘Will this work here?’ the answer is yes,” he said. The same dietary approach that reduces the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes as well as boost overall mood may produce huge benefits for the employer, as well.

“When you lose weight, you have a sense of power and accomplishment,” he noted. “You can improve your life as well as the health of the company.”

That’s one fitness goal that everyone can get behind.
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<em>ABOUT THE WRITER
James Daly is a veteran tech journalist and media entrepreneur. He has written for Wired, Forbes, Rolling Stone, TED, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times.</em>

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