Employees who purchase unhealthy food at office may indulge in such diet outside work as well, increasing their risk of lifestyle ailments such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, a study suggests.
The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, demonstrated that employees at a large urban hospital who purchased the least healthy food in its cafeteria were more likely to have an unhealthy diet outside of work, be overweight and obese.
They also were more likely to have risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease, compared to employees who made healthier purchases.
These findings contribute to a better understanding of the relationship of eating behaviours at work with overall diet and health and can help to shape worksite wellness programmes that both improve long-term health outcomes and reduce costs.
“Employer-sponsored programmes to promote healthy eating could reach millions of Americans and help to curb obesity, a worsening epidemic that too often leads to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer,” said Anne N Thorndike, from Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in the US.
Previous research has shown that obesity contributes to higher absenteeism, lower productivity, and higher healthcare expenses for employers.
These findings can lead to more effective strategies to encourage employees to choose healthier foods and reduce their risks for chronic conditions.
“Workplace wellness programmes have the potential to promote lifestyle changes among large populations of employees, yet to date there have been challenges to developing effective programs. We hope our findings will help to inform the development of accessible, scalable, and affordable interventions,” noted Jessica L McCurley, from Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School.
Participants were 602 Massachusetts General Hospital employees who regularly used the hospital’s cafeterias and were enrolled in a health promotion study.
As part of the hospital’s “Choose Well, Eat Well” programme, foods and beverages in the hospital cafeterias have “traffic light” labels to indicate their healthfulness: green is healthy, yellow is less healthy, and red is unhealthy.
Food displays have also been modified to put healthier choices in the direct line of sight, while unhealthy foods were made less accessible to reduce impulse purchases.
“Simplified labelling strategies provide an opportunity to educate employees without restricting their freedom of choice. In the future, using purchase data to provide personalised nutritional feedback via email or text messaging is another option to explore to encourage healthy eating,” said Thorndike.