Eating Smart In The Workplace
Ask any businessperson what they believe determines the success of their organization, and almost always they will point to the importance of their employees. Employee morale, workload, work-life quality, and health are key factors that influence sales, profits, and overall performance.
Organizations are increasingly investing time and effort to implement educational programs and health promotion strategies in the workplace that are aimed at enhancing employee performance.When designing and implementing these new initiatives, however, the role of healthy eating and nutrition can often be neglected. What and when an employee eats is one of the key determinates of how well they will perform. Most people don’t realize that energy levels and moods can be traced to what was or was not eaten up to twelve hours earlier. By promoting a basic understanding of nutrition in the workplace, employers and workplace health care professionals can encourage employees to adopt healthier eating habits. The resulting increase in energy and more positive attitudes will reinforce the importance of diet and nutrition.
At Bellwood, a Toronto-based addiction treatment centre, with a holistic approach, proper nutrition is emphasized. Clients learn about the nutrients in foods and their functions; which nutrients they should eat to help them recover; and nutritional problems that they must address. “From the first day of treatment, we teach our clients which nutrients they should eat to help them recover. Then, we work with them to develop meal planning skills and look at practical ways they can integrate these skills into their daily routines once they return to their homes and work environments,” explains Margaret Fieldhouse, B.A. Sc. (Nutrition), nutritionist at Bellwood Health Services. A closer look at the relationship between food and energy will illustrate how the workplace can benefit from employees adopting Bellwood’s approach to nutrition in their daily lives.
The key to maintaining consistent energy levels throughout the day is to eat three meals and three snacks, and to include an adequate amount of protein with each meal and snack. “It really is that simple,” explains Ms. Fieldhouse, “however, few people maintain a proper diet. There are many reasons for this, but often, it is simply a lack of understanding of the basics of nutrition. By adding snacks, energy levels can be maintained at a consistent level throughout the day, instead of peaking and then bottoming out before the next meal.”
The amount of fuel in the human body directly affects energy levels, mood and overall health. The body receives its fuel from three food components: carbohydrates, protein and fat. The amount of fuel provided by each varies. Of the three components, protein will provide energy for the longest period of time, up to three to four hours. A meal containing a combination of carbohydrate, protein and fat can fuel the body for up to five hours (Martinic, 2000).
Neurotransmitters are biochemicalsproduced in brain nerve endings. The purpose of these neurotransmitters is to move from the nerve endings, cross the synapse gap, and fit into receptor sites on the opposite side of the synapse. Maintaining proper levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and acetylcholine, and keeping receptor sites filled is directly proportional to the levels of motivation, alertness, concentration, and mood. These neurotransmitters are also responsible for normal sleep, and the regulation of memory, learning, blood pressure, appetite, and body temperature (McArthur, The Franklin Institute Online: www.fi.edu/brain/nutrition/proteins/neurotransmitters). Most neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, which are obtained from the protein contained in the food we consume. Since neurotransmitters are depleted every two hours, the relationship between energy levels, protein, and the recommendation to eat regular meals and snacks becomes clear.
How does all of this relate to employees, the workplace and productivity? Consider the impact of one employee’s eating habits on work performance. Jim oversleeps and in a rush to get to work, he skips breakfast. On the way to the office, he realizes he is hungry and stops to pick up a coffee and donut. Rushing to his desk, and mentally reviewing his plans for the day ahead, Jim is met by his boss who informs him that a report is needed for a board meeting at two o’clock. Jim begins working on the report, giving no thought to a break. At eleven, someone brings him another coffee. At two, the report is in the hands of his boss, and Jim feels relieved and happy. He walks down the hall to the cafeteria, to find it closed. On the way back to his desk, he passes the vending machine. Suddenly very hungry, Jim returns to his desk with a chocolate bar and a package of cookies. Finishing off the day, and feeling starved again, he heads for home and enjoys a full dinner. As he relaxes for the evening, Jim begins to crave more junk food, and raids the cupboards for potato chips and chocolate covered peanuts. Jim goes to bed, wakes up late again the next morning, skips breakfast again, rushes to the office, and the cycle continues.
A quick analysis of Jim’s routine shows that between one evening dinner and the next, his diet consisted of coffee, sweets, and junk food. The lack of nutrients obtained in the food he ate throughout the day forced his body to turn to stored nutrients to get its energy and neurotransmitters. The nutrients from his next proper meal would be stored, usually as fat. The effects of his low protein intake would begin to show the next day. Fatigue, mood swings, and a decreased ability to cope would become evident, as he would find himself struggling to get through the day. The highs and lows provided by the caffeine and sweets would be reflected in his disposition, attitude, and interaction with co-workers. His inability to concentrate would make it difficult for him to complete the last minute revisions on his report requested by his boss.
Unfortunately, situations such as this occur too often in the workplace. Many organizations now recognize that healthy eating can have a dramatically positive effect on the work environment. Conversely, they realize that the work environment itself can alsoinfluence the health of the employees. In response to this, some companies have begun to work with workplace healthcare professionals to develop and implement programs, which will encourage healthy eating and lifestyles among their employees. What and when an employee eats while not at work cannot be controlled. However, promoting proper nutrition during working hours can encourage employees to develop new habits and routines which will likely carry over into all areas of their lives.
Education and awareness should be the starting point of any program. Employees will not see the benefits of adopting healthier eating habits if they are not aware of the connection between food and energy. There are many ways to provide information using methods that will generate interest and encourage changes. Distribution of Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating, lunch time information sessions, “theme” weeks, healthy recipe exchanges, and poster displays are some examples of how employees can be introduced to healthier eating.
The workplace environment should be considered when developing a program to encourage nutrition awareness and healthy eating. Needs can vary according to the environment and type of work. Within an office environment, management should be encouraged to introduce policies that will support a corporate healthy eating program. This can include encouraging meeting organizers to serve muffins, fruit, salads, and juice at meetings instead of donuts, pizza, coffee and soft drinks. The contents of vending machines can be changed to offer healthier snacks for breaks (CCOHS, cited 2002, www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/healthyeating).
The company cafeteria can play a key role in the development of a successful program. The importance of providing healthy and nutritious food, which is prepared and presented in a pleasant environment, cannot be understated. For example, an integral part of the nutrition program at Bellwood Health Services is Chez Daniel Fine Cuisine, Bellwood’s private dining room, and a Toronto “Eat Smart! Award of Excellence” establishment. Creative meals served in a warm and relaxing atmosphere which blends music, flowers, décor, and approachable staff, combine to make the whole dining experience an important part of the facility’s treatment programs. As Chef Daniel explains, “By serving appetizing and healthy meals in warm and friendly surroundings, we are encouraging our clients to embrace the concept of ‘the wholeness of eating’."
For people working shifts, regular eating schedules can be even more important. Rotating shifts and constantly changing routines make it easy for people to neglect a regular eating schedule. Workers who skip meals while on the night shift can find themselves fatigued and less alert, a dangerous combination in many industrial environments. Encouraging employees to eat a high protein meal and have regular snacks during their shifts can help them remain alert and avoid lapses in concentration, which may lead to situations that could compromise safety (Saskatoon District Health, cited 1998, www.sdh.sk.ca/foodnutrition).
A proper balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats has always been the cornerstone of healthy living. Recognizing the significance of nutrition within the workplace, employers and workplace health care professionals have begun to incorporate healthy eating initiatives into employee wellness programs. They are finding that educating employees about the relationship between eating patterns, energy levels, attitudes, and overall health is an opportunity to positively impact the success of an organization. Finally, these workplace initiatives can encourage employees to consider the positive effect that health awareness can have on their overall health and well-being.
At the main meal, it is important to consume a good source of protein to ensure that the necessary amino acids are consumed. Suggested sources of protein at meals include:
- Peanut Butter
- Protein Powder
- Nuts and Seeds
All foods contain a certain amount of protein. A snack will provide enough protein to maintain energy levels until the next meal. Suggested snacks include:
- Nuts and Seeds
Margaret Fieldhouse, B.A.Sc. (Nutrition), nutritionist at Bellwood Health Services, has 15 years in the field of addiction and nutrition. She is a certified Ontario Fitness Instructor and trainer. Her experience includes work in Wellness Programs and Community Outreach.
Julie Bowles, B.A. is Public Affairs Representative for Bellwood Health Services.
Bellwood Health Services, Inc., a Toronto-based facility providing treatment for alcohol, drug, gambling and sexual addictions, and eating disorders to clients across Canada and the United States since 1984. For further information, visit www.bellwood.ca, or call 1-800-387-6198.
Canadian Centre for Occupation.(cited 2002).
Healthy eating at work. http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/healthyeating
Martinic, H. D. (2000). Food, moodand energy. (2nd Ed). Toronto: Norwest.McArthur, John D. Molecules of themind. The Franklin Institute Online. http://www.fi.edu/brain/nutrition/proteins/neurotransmitters
Saskatoon District Health. (cited1998). Staying Alert on the Job. http://www.sdh.sk.ca/foodnutrition
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