8 Ways to Build Healthier Eating Habits in the Workplace

8 Ways to Build Healthier Eating Habits in the Workplace

March 02, 2022

A perennial favorite among at-work perks — free or subsidized food — may be contributing to poorer health outcomes. But there are some simple ways to keep this benefit and help build healthier eating habits, with results that are good for your employees and your company.

The Society for Human Resource Management reports a large increase in the number of employers providing food and drinks over the past decade. But, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), office foods tend to be unhealthy and could be contributing to chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

The CDC study revealed that employees who ate office food consumed almost 1,300 additional calories a week. That extra amount is compounded by the types of food available at work, which tend to be high in added sugars, sodium and refined grains. The leading office foods included pizza, soft drinks, candy, cookies, brownies, cakes and pies.

Good for employees, good for employers

Tasty treats will always have their place, but healthy eating habits can lead to payoffs for employees and employers. Research from Colorado State University found that employees who eat more fruits and vegetables report:

  • Lower health care costs
  • Reduced stress levels
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Increased happiness

A study from the University of Warwick showed that happier employees were more productive. In addition, the health care alliance Canopy Health reported that employees with healthier eating habits show:

  • Higher job performance and engagement
  • Reductions in absenteeism and presenteeism
  • Fewer workers’ compensation claims

Of course, getting someone to trade that piece of chocolate cake for whole grain oats is easier said than done. Here are some ideas to get started.

8 ways to encourage healthier food habits

1. Be positive. Focus on the benefits of healthy food, such as increased energy, improved immune response and potential health care savings. Never shame anyone for their eating habits. This will likely reduce participation in your wellness efforts and damage your company culture. Psychology Today reports that shame makes people want to withdraw and can be damaging to physical and mental health.

2. Combine efforts. Encourage healthy eating by integrating it with other wellness efforts. If you usually charge for snacks or meals, offer them free for a week as part of a “Boost your wallet, boost your energy” campaign. It can draw attention to a holistic approach to well-being and increase participation in other facets of your wellness programming.

3. Find healthy eating champions. The Harvard Gazette reports that people tend to eat the same foods as those around them, including co-workers. Getting support and participation from a key group of employees can have a ripple effect as they influence co-workers to make similarly healthful choices, according to a study from Mongan Institute Healthy Policy Research Center. In addition, they can share recipes and encouragement to continue healthy eating outside of work.

4. Reduce costs for healthy options. Everyone loves a bargain. As an extra nudge, offer healthier food and beverage options for free or at reduced prices. If a cheeseburger costs twice as much as a rice bowl, or a salad is offered for free, people will be more apt to select the healthier option.

5. Make it easy. When people are hungry, they tend to choose what’s readily available. At meetings, offer a fruit basket with bananas, apples and oranges. Not only does the immediate availability make it the easier option, but fruit is a healthier replacement for typical meeting treats like muffins and cookies. If you provide meals, offer options that make it simple to reduce intake, including half-sandwiches, cups of soup (instead of bowls) and smaller beverage containers.

6. Think small. The amount we eat is decided more by visual cues than how hungry we feel, according to studies from Cornell University. Stocking your kitchen or lunchroom with smaller plates and bowls allows employees to fill them up while still eating appropriate portion sizes. To influence behavior elsewhere, you can reduce the number of options in vending machines and snack bowls to a handful of healthier selections.

7. Use healthy defaults. If you have a cafeteria or use a third-party food service, make healthier items the default option on the menu. For example, a sandwich automatically comes with an apple instead of a bag of chips.

8. Manage presentation. The ways in which you offer food can emphasize healthy options. In a self-serve setting, you can highlight nutritious food with bigger lettering or more appealing visuals. Another strategy is placing fruits, vegetables and other nutritious food at eye level and within easy reach, while desserts are stashed in a corner. In addition, you could add a cafeteria line that is dedicated solely to healthier selections.

Putting it into action

Providing nutritious food options can reap rewards throughout and beyond the workplace. As more employees return to the office in 2022, now is a good time to assess your offerings and implement strategies to help build healthier habits.