Stocking the break room with sugary drinks and granola bars and catering an employee lunch of cheesy pizza is a nice gesture. After all, everyone loves free food!
But, the next time you're looking to bring in a pastry bar for breakfast or taco bar for lunch, take a moment to consider healthier options. Highly processed foods — characteristic of the American diet — can degrade health over time.
As poor diets have proliferated, national spending on diet-related diseases has skyrocketed. Today, the $3.69 trillion in annual healthcare spending goes to people struggling with chronic health conditions. It’s estimated that 600,000 people in the U.S. die every year due to diet-related diseases, making poor nutrition a major contributor to deaths around the country every year.
If you think these sobering statistics have nothing to do with the world of work, think again. To be sure, a single sub containing highly processed meat served at an all-hands meeting is not going to tank somebody’s health. But more often than not, people say their work gets in the way of having a balanced diet: Over half of workers report that their job makes it difficult to eat healthy. And employers are paying for this reality, literally. As healthcare costs rise due to poor diets, so do the costs of covering employee healthcare.
But there’s a silver lining to this cloud: Companies can turn the tide and lead the way toward a healthier workforce. Rolling out a nutrition program can help your employees live healthier lives while reducing the company’s healthcare spending.
Here’s how to take advantage of this win-win scenario.
How Companies Are Already Paying for Poor Nutrition
For every dollar spent on healthcare in the United States, 85 cents goes to chronic conditions related to poor diet. Those chronic diseases are just a few of the health conditions tied to poor nutrition that drive up healthcare costs, and the foods that help trigger them.
Obesity increases an employee’s healthcare costs by 27%. This widespread condition is more likely than not affecting your workforce, as 42% of American adults are obese. Companies and individuals in the U.S. spend between $147 and $210 billion a year treating obesity and the health issues it triggers, like strokes, osteoporosis, and cancer. Research shows the Western diet, which is characterized by foods packed with sugar and fats, is tightly associated with obesity.
Type 2 Diabetes
Obesity is a risk factor for developing Type 2 diabetes, which is a condition where the pancreas does not make enough insulin to process sugar properly. (This is distinct from Type 1 diabetes, which is when somebody’s pancreas cannot process sugar at all.)
An employee with diabetes has twice the annual medical expenses as an employee without diabetes ($11,354 vs. $5,101). It’s estimated that these direct medical treatments add up to $175 billion in spending every year. There’s a high likelihood that Type 2 diabetes is impacting your workforce: About one in 10 U.S. adults has diabetes, 93% of which have Type 2 diabetes. Another 96 million Americans are prediabetic, meaning they have an elevated risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure — which can cause heart failure and kidney disease, among other issues — increases the cost of an employee’s healthcare by nearly 33%. Foods that are salty, sugary, or full of trans fats — such as non-dairy coffee creamer and frozen pizza — have been shown to increase blood pressure. Lower blood pressure is tied to a diet of fruits, veggies, lean protein (like chicken) and whole grains.
Cardiometabolic diseases — like heart attacks, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and strokes — can be caused by diets that lack seafood, nuts, or seeds. They can also be triggered by chronically eating too much sodium. The typical American consumes more sodium than recommended, 70% of it comes from packaged, processed, restaurant, and store-bought foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease, just one illness in this constellation of preventable conditions, cost employers $216 billion in direct medical expenses last year.
Consuming highly processed foods — like potato chips and frozen meals — and beverages sweetened with sugar can increase the risk of some cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cancers tied to diet include colorectal and uterine cancer. Treating the latter costs, on average, $6,852 every year per patient.
Diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s are neurodegenerative diseases, which are characterized by decreasing brain function. Research is increasingly linking these conditions to chronic inflammation, which can be triggered by consistently eating inflammatory foods over time. Popular foods that trigger inflammation include soda, white bread, red meat, margarine, and fried dishes. Medication to slow the progression of the disease, which helps people stay in the workforce, can cost up to $460 a month. Such expenses add up — health care for Alzheimer’s disease cost the U.S. $321 billion in 2022.
While Alzheimer’s is most common in people of traditional retirement age (65+), employers should keep in mind that 25% of the current workforce is Baby Boomers, the group most likely to develop such conditions.
What is an Employee Nutrition Program?
An employee nutrition program is an offering of services designed to educate and empower healthy eating habits among employees. The goal of such programs is to improve the wellbeing of employees, as well as decrease absenteeism and lower healthcare spending by reducing the prevalence of dietary diseases.
Three common examples of an employee nutrition plan include providing educational materials on dietary practices, nutrition-tracking apps, offering free or subsidized nutritional foods that align with the needs of your employees, and hosting seminars on healthy meals.
Educational materials can include pamphlets, videos, healthy recipes, meal prep guidance, and more. These materials explain important concepts like macronutrients, portion control, food sensitivity versus allergies. Free or subsidized fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other health foods provide workers with healthier snacks than they might otherwise purchase from a vending machine or convenience store. Seminar lead by professional nutritionists can go beyond nutrition to include other aspects of health like stress management or physical activity.
Effective Nutrition Programs for Employees
When crafting healthy eating programs for employees, it may be tempting to host an educational session and call it a day. After all, a seminar is simple to set up, and it's easy to calculate employee engagement based on how many people attend.
But it’s important to remember that education alone is only part of a larger program. Chances are, your employees already know that a salad and carrots are a healthier lunch than fried chicken and potato chips. There are reasons more complex than ignorance that employees have unhealthy diets.
Consider Google’s findings from a volunteer employee diet program. Participants were sorted into three groups: One received information about the relationship between blood glucose and weight gain; the second received information as well as tools like monitoring devices and data sheets so they could act on that information; the third received nothing, serving as the control group.
The experiment managers found that “after three months, there was no difference between the information group and the control in achieving personal goals, but for those who had received the tools, 10% more people reported making progress on their body goals, and 27% more reported making progress on their diet goals. By the end of the study, those in the tools group found healthy choices were becoming more habitual. Information alone was not enough to facilitate change, but tools and measurement made the healthy choice the easy choice.”
Then there are the restrictions on healthy choices that have nothing to do with willpower, but with access. An estimated 49 million people in America, for example, are considered food insecure. This, by definition, means they are unable to afford nutritionally adequate foods — and research shows that being food insecure is associated with higher rates of health issues like hypertension and other cardiovascular risk factors.
If you want your nutrition initiative to have a measurable impact on your healthcare spending, consider using several of the tactics below for a holistic approach.
When people record what they eat, they are more likely to make healthier choices about the food they eat. Consistent food tracking through digital apps has been also shown to help people lose weight, making these tools a useful part of any employee nutrition program. You can make this possible by sponsoring subscriptions to apps like LifeSum or MyFitnessPal, which helps people track food and fasting based on their individual fitness goals. Research shows that people who use MyFitnessPal consistently are more likely to achieve their fitness goals.
Nutritionists & Dieticians
Habit change is more likely when we have a partner. After all, people are 65% more likely to reach a goal if they make the commitment to somebody else, according to research conducted by the American Society for Training and Development. Giving employees access to dietary professionals not only gives them an accountability partner, but one with the expertise to answer their questions and coach them based on their individual nutrition goals. This can be done through services like Nootric, which connects users with a dietitian to help them adopt sustainable, healthy habits for the long-term. With weekday conversations available via chat, your employees can fine-tune their eating habits over time.
Upgrading Office Snacks
Consider stocking your office break room with dried fruits or nuts instead of having a vending machine full of candy and chips. This simple change can make a major difference: Eating plenty of fruits and veggies makes it less likely to develop eye and digestive diseases, and increased produce consumption was found todecrease the risk of prediabetes for people who are food insecure.
Pre-set Meal Plans
People can only make so many decisions in one day. In a phenomenon known as decision fatigue, people tend to make worse decisions the more choices they are asked to make back-to-back. The average person has to make a mind-boggling 35,000 choices a day, and more than 220 of those are directly related to food. That’s why it’s harder to say no to dessert after dinner than it was to say no to that breakfast donut. Offering meal plans through programs like Ekilu and Lifesum can help employees alleviate the impact decision-making fatigue has on their diet. This can help them make better choices more often.
Healthy Catered Lunches
A company meal is a great time to support healthy eating habits. Next time you’re supplying food at an all-hands, consider opting for a Mediterranean spread. Research has continually shown that a Mediterranean diet — characterized by foods like leafy greens, whole grains, and fish — can decrease chronic inflammation, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and lengthen lifespan. While planning any even with food, make sure to reach out to your employees to assess what food allergies or dietary restrictions need to be considered.
Save by Helping Employees Eat Healthy with Gympass
Gympass’ network of 50,000 wellbeing partners includes a suite of nutrition supports. Employees at our more than 15,000 clients have access to the tools they need to take charge of their diet. From MyFitnessPal to Lifesum, Ekilu to Nootric and beyond, every employee can find the resources that work for them.
Companies with Gympass see their healthcare costs drop by up to 35%. Speak with a wellbeing specialist today!
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The Gympass Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.