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Are employees regularly buying unhealthy food in the office cafeteria?

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Eating healthily at work matters, as a new study shows employees who purchase unhealthy food at the office cafeteria are likely to have an unhealthy diet outside of work as well, and vice versa.

The study was conducted on 602 employees of a large urban hospital (Massachusetts General Hospital) to find those staff who purchased the least healthy food in its cafeteria were more likely to:

  • Have an unhealthy diet outside of work,
  • Be overweight and/or obese, and
  • Have risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease, compared to employees who made healthier purchases.

As featured in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, published by Elsevier and cited in Science Daily, the study participants were enrolled in a health promotion study in 2016-2018.

As part of the programme, foods and beverages (F&B) in the 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.

Using cafeteria purchasing data, the investigators developed a Healthy Purchasing Score (HPS) to rate the dietary quality of employees’ overall purchases.

The analysis showed that employees with the lowest HPS (least healthy purchases) had the lowest overall dietary quality and the highest risk for obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Healthier purchases were associated with higher dietary quality and lower prevalence of obesity, hypertension, and prediabetes/diabetes.

Lessons for employers and HR

The findings point to a need for employers to assess the healthfulness of their F&B offerings, and similar such employer-sponsored programmes.

“Workplace wellness programs have the potential to promote lifestyle changes among large populations of employees, yet to date there have been challenges to developing effective programmes,” noted Jessica L. McCurley, PhD, MPH, one of the study’s investigators and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.

“Simplified labeling 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,” added lead investigator Anne N. Thorndike, MD, MPH, Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.



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