What we eat at our place of work has a huge impact on our overall diet and influences our productivity. The prevalence of overweight and obesity combined is now 65% for females and 31% for males (2012 South African Health and Nutrition Examination Survey – SANHANES) and unhealthy workplace eating behaviour is believed to be playing a role in South Africa’s growing obesity problem.
The Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) has partnered with National Nutrition Week since the late 1990s to highlight important nutrition messages to South Africans. “In line with our continued efforts to support South Africans in living healthier lifestyles and to promote dietitians as the go-to experts for nutrition advice, the issues around healthy eating in the workplace are close to our hearts and something our dietitians deal with on a daily basis”, says ADSA President, Maryke Gallagher.
Employees consume at least half of their meals and snacks during work hours, making this an important place to promote healthy eating. Registered Dietitian, Alex Royal, says that healthy eating at work can be a challenge as there are often too many temptations: the vending machine, the sweets trolley, colleagues who have bad habits that influence others. “During a busy day we don’t have time (or forget) to prepare healthy meals or even forget to eat. So blood glucose levels drop, resulting in an energy dip and potentially cravings, especially for highly processed and sugary foods. This fuels the cycle of unhealthy eating at work”, Royal concludes.
The question is what can employers do to create a healthier food environment at work? Suggestions include changing meal options available at work to be in line with the guidelines for healthy eating, offering a variety of foods, controlling portion sizes, overhauling vending machines and kiosks to include healthy snack options, offering drinks that are not sugar-laden and changing the menu of food provided during meetings. Cath Day, Registered Dietitian and ADSA spokesperson, also offers some tips for employees:
- Before grabbing a snack, first ask yourself if you are really hungry or if you rather need to take a break from what you are doing. Going for a short walk or getting some fresh air – may be all you need.
- Don’t skip meals or healthy snacking between meals. Skipping meals and snacks results in dips in blood glucose (sugar) levels and thus you will be more likely to crave unhealthy foods.
We often talk about school lunchboxes, but what about work lunchboxes? These go a long way in giving employees more control over what they eat during the day. According to Registered Dietitian Kelly Schreuder the goals of a healthy work lunchbox include: Variety and balance of foods, providing a variety of nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, fat and micronutrients. Real food, as opposed to processed snacks and those that are high in added sugar, excess salt and poor quality fat, and portion control.
And what about fluids – what should we be drinking while we are at work? “The simple answer is that water should be the main beverage we are drinking while working but there are many other healthy options to choose from as well. People often forget that beverages can contain a large amount of energy (and many beverages contain too much sugar such as sugar sweetened beverages and fruit juice) so we need to be more mindful about what we are drinking”, say ADSA spokesperson Catherine Pereira.
Being active in the workplace is also important and employees should try to be as physically active as possible. Durban-based dietitian, Hlanzeka Mpanza says that it is not impossible to include some physical exercise in the workday. Use the steps instead of the lift; form an exercise club with colleagues and try to fit in a 15 minute walk during the lunch hour; wear a pedometer during the day to keep track of activity levels and as a motivator; and stretch your legs by walking over to your colleagues’ desk instead of sending them an email.
What we eat affects our mood, how alert we are and our overall productivity. We asked dietitian Maryke Bronkhorst why food influences us in this way. “Some foods contain nutrients that are used to manufacture certain brain chemicals that may enhance mental tasks like memory, concentration, and reaction time. Protein foods enhance the brain’s production of dopamine, a natural brain chemical that helps one to feel alert. Large quantities of carbohydrates, on the other hand, result in the production of serotonin, a natural brain chemical that can cause drowsiness, but glucose in the bloodstream is the brain’s main source of energy. So it’s important that you eat at regular intervals and choose low glycaemic index options to prevent your blood sugar levels from dropping too low”, says Bronkhorst. Lean biltong, a small handful nuts, a piece of fresh fruit e.g. blueberries, vegetable crudités with a dip like hummus and plain yoghurt flavoured with handful of berries are great ‘go-to’ snacks.
On Tuesday, 13th October ADSA (@ADSA_RD) is hosting a #WorkplaceNutrition twitter talk from 1pm to 2pm. The talk will focus on healthy eating and healthy living in the workplace providing employees with tips, ideas and advice about achieving a better nutrition balance during work hours. Dietitians and National Nutrition Week partners will be answering questions such as:
- What are challenges employees face with healthy eating at work?
- What can employees or workplace do to improve healthy eating during the workday?
- What should be included in a work lunchbox?
- What should we be drinking while we are working?
- How do we stay active while working?
- What are the go-to snacks that give energy needed to work well?
Join the conversation live on Twitter, follow the @ADSA_RD handle or track the hashtag #WorkplaceNutrition to get some great ideas and tips on how to eat healthily at work.