How to Encourage Healthy Eating at Work

Workplaces are not necessarily known for an abundance of healthy eating options. Office celebrations often mean it's time to serve doughnuts, pizza, or cake, and delicious but calorie-laden dishes typically prevail at potlucks.

While an occasional treat is not going to cause significant harm to a person's health, making it a habit to gravitate toward unhealthy choices can bring trouble. A recent United Health Foundation study found that 27.8 percent of U.S. adults — 66 million Americans — are obese (30 or more pounds over a healthy weight). Being obese can lead to a number of health issues, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and certain cancers, and it is costly. By 2030, medical costs linked to the treatment of obesity-related diseases is expected to be $66 billion per year; being obese can raise an individual's health costs by $1,850 annually.

Given that people usually spend at least eight hours a day at work, it makes sense to have healthy choices available in the workplace. While this doesn't mean the food police need to round up all sugary or fat-laden goodies, it can include education about the rewards of healthy eating and ideas for nutritious fare that can be served on treat days or at meetings and celebrations.

Foods to avoid or limit include baked goods, chips, and pastas. These foods are calorie-dense and easy to overeat: A small serving can contain a large number of calories, and a person may consume more calories than they realize in a short amount of time.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are foods that are low in calories and high in volume. They make a person feel full without bringing an excess amount of calories into the diet and typically have higher fiber and water content than foods that are calorie-dense. These healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. As a bonus, they take longer to digest because of the fiber they contain, making a person feel full and satisfied for a longer period of time.

To make healthy foods part of an office celebration, offer a selection of fresh fruit (such as apple slices, strawberries, banana halves, or grapes) or a vegetable tray with low-fat dip. A pitcher of ice water or unsweetened tea can be substituted for soda, and lightly buttered popcorn can replace salty snacks. Angel food cake, which has less fat and fewer calories than chocolate cake, can be served with fresh fruit topping. Other sweet choices can include low-fat ice cream or yogurt.

If food is catered for an office event, check with the caterer for healthy options. Serve sauces, spreads, or toppings on the side and prepare sandwiches on whole-grain bread and with low-fat cheese. Vegetable or cheese pizza rather than a meat-topped pizza could be offered and served with fruit or vegetables on the side rather than chips.

Everyone loves a challenge, and a potluck with a prize for the healthiest dish could encourage workers to search for lower-calorie versions of their favorite dishes. Follow it up with a recipe exchange to help workers make better food choices at home, too.

It's a rare person who likes to be told what they should be eating, so trying to transform workplace culture by issuing a healthy food mandate is not likely to go over well. But welcoming worker input, offering smaller portions of less healthy foods, and providing healthier options can help workers, and the scale, move in the right direction.

Terri Dougherty is an associate editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. (, a nationally recognized compliance resource firm that offers a diverse line of products and services to address the broad range of responsibilities held by human resources and corporate professionals. She is also the editor of J. J. Keller's LivingRight Health and Wellness Awareness kit. The January 2013 kit focuses on weight management, and the February kit will look at healthy living.

Posted by Terri L. Dougherty on Dec 17, 2012