Although National Nutrition Month is coming to an end, the importance of cultivating nutritional education extends far beyond the 31st of March. One of the most critical issues impacting today’s workforce is the prevalence of chronic diseases caused by poor nutrition—and the underlying causes that need to be understood.
Poor nutrition and the bottom line
Nearly half of adults in the U.S. have at least one chronic disease, the most common of which include obesity, heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, and poor bone health . Not only are these conditions the most costly of all health problems, they are also the most preventable: an overwhelming majority of these diseases can be attributed to poor-quality eating patterns and physical inactivity .
Diet- and inactivity-related conditions have proven to be harmful not only to the individual, but also the employer—in terms of both direct and indirect costs. Compared to those who regularly consume fresh produce, whole grains, and low-fat foods, workers with unhealthy diets are 66% more likely to experience a loss in productivity .
Collectively, workers who choose healthy diets are less at risk of developing chronic disease, miss less work due to illness, and are far more productive . According to the CDC, healthier diets could save businesses around $87 billion in direct costs, such as insurance premiums and worker’s compensation claims, as well as indirect costs such as lost productivity and even lost lives.
The relationship between employee nutrition habits and business health expenditures cannot be overlooked. Identifying nutrition as a core aspect of prevention is crucial toward sustaining a healthier workforce in the long term.
How did we get here?
The prevalence of chronic, nutrition-related diseases affecting U.S. adults can be attributed to two main factors, the first of which is easy access to processed foods. Over the past century, the U.S. has seen rapid growth in innovations that have provided the average consumer with cheaper and more accessible food. According to a 2014 RAND Health report, the widespread, constant availability of cheap food appears to have the strongest link to obesity, more so than the rise of electronic entertainment, the shift towards sedentary jobs, and increased use of cars . In the 1930s, for example, Americans spent about 25% of their disposable income on food. Today, that number has decreased to just under 10 percent; we are spending less to eat more.
Another contributing factor behind our increasingly unhealthy workforce is a lack of nutrition education. Processed foods have become a staple in the American diet in a matter of just a few decades, which becomes a serious issue when combined with a largely uninformed public. Researchers continue to emphasize the importance of public health policies that encourage not only the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, but also how and why to avoid a diet that is high in sugar, carbohydrates, and sodium .
These policies can also be applied to wellness programs in the workplace; workers, particularly those performing industrial, physically-demanding tasks, should be able to consciously choose food that will provide them with lasting energy throughout the day. The empty calories in junk food and processed food may lend workers a temporary boost of energy, but is almost always followed by feelings of sluggishness and a lack of true satiation.
Knowledge is power
Empowering workers to make smarter choices about nutrition is one of the most effective ways to prevent chronic disease. An analysis of 120 separate consumer behavior studies shows evidence that nutrition labels are perceived as highly credible, yet also present challenges to those who do not fully understand how to interpret them . However, further research demonstrates that consumers with prior nutrition knowledge are more likely to use food label information to their advantage , by:
- Focusing on salient information
- Understanding the information
- Making healthy decisions based on this understanding
Encouraging better habits with nutrition education
Perhaps the best way to maintain a healthy diet is to limit processed food and focus more on consuming whole foods— vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes– that don’t require labels to explain the nutritional content. However, ease of access to grocery stores, quality of food available, and limited food preparation time are just a few of many lifestyle factors that often prevent workers from avoiding processed foods altogether.
Instead, providing workers with nutrition education may encourage them to think more critically when selecting prepared foods, empower them to make smart choices as informed consumers, and ultimately reinforce the idea that a healthy, nutritious diet will benefit them personally in all aspects of life. For employers, that means integrating this education into a workplace wellness or safety program that’s tailored to the specific needs of employees. One example of how to achieve this can be seen through the Walk Off With One program offered by BIOKINETIX, which uses concise, customized materials to provide education on both seasonal and environmental risk factors for employees—all of which relate back to wellness and a focus on long-term health.
- Campos, S., Doxey, J., & Hammond, D. (2011). Nutrition labels on pre-packaged foods: a systematic review. Public Health Nutrition, 14(08), 1496-1506. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/s1368980010003290
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Chronic Disease Overview. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/overview/
- Miller, L., & Cassady, D. (2015). The effects of nutrition knowledge on food label use. A review of the literature. Appetite, 92, 207-216. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2015.05.029
- Merrill, R., Aldana, S., Pope, J., Anderson, D., Coberley, C., & Whitmer, and the HERO Research Stud, R. (2012). Presenteeism According to Healthy Behaviors, Physical Health, and Work Environment. Population Health Management, 15(5), 293-301. http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/pop.2012.0003
- Sturm, R. and An, R. (2014). Obesity and economic environments. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 64: 337–350. doi: 10.3322/caac.21237
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2015). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020. 8th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2015.
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