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National Nutrition Week takes place from 9 to 15 October 2015 and the theme is “Healthy Eating in the Workplace". This is a joint initiative by the Department of Health, The Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), the Nutrition Society of South Africa (NSSA), the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA), the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA) and the Consumer Education Project of Milk SA (CEP). This year it aims to encourage employees to make healthy food choices at the office, and employers and corporate food providers to make healthy meals easily available in the workplace.

Meals employees eat at work influence their productivity and their risk of occupational conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

In fact, unhealthy workplace eating behaviour is believed to be playing a role in South Africa’s burgeoning obesity problem. The 2012 South African Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES) showed local obesity levels have skyrocketed. The prevalence of overweight and obesity combined is now 65% for females and 31% for males.

“Many workers consume at least half of their meals and snacks during work hours. This makes the workplace an important setting to promote healthy eating by creating an environment where healthy food choices are readily accessible through canteens, function catering or vending machines,” says Lynn Moeng, Chief-Director: Health Promotion, Nutrition and Oral Health at the Department of Health.

Workplaces often inadvertently promote unhealthy eating. A 2012 Australian study revealed that the most common nutrition barriers in the workplace included ‘unhealthy food available in the office’ (30.6%), ‘lack of healthy options near office’ (28.8%) and ‘healthy food more expensive than unhealthy food’ (15.4%).

Moeng encourages employers to increase the availability of healthy meals in their workplace canteens. Meals should be appealing, affordable, prepared using healthier cooking methods such as grilling, baking and steaming and where possible, provide nutrition information to promote healthier choices. The provision of water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages during workplace functions or meetings is also encouraged.

According to Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, CEO of The Heart & Stroke Foundation SA, unhealthy eating at workplaces means that employees become overweight or obese are at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and strokes, as well as certain cancers; all of which can have a big impact on the income of the family because of health care expenses” Obesity is also associated with a 25% higher chance of workplace injury says Dr Mungal-Singh.

For employers unhealthy eating behaviour at workplaces means less productive employees. Employees with an unhealthy diet have been found to have a 66% increased risk of lower productivity than those who ate a healthy diet. Globally it has been found that obesity also generates indirect costs for employers by increasing workers’ compensation claims and related lost workdays, absenteeism and disability in people aged 50-69. The productivity costs attributable to obesity are significant, and the indirect costs of obesity could well outweigh the direct medical costs.

It’s for these reasons National Nutrition Week 2015, which takes place from 9 to 15 October 2015, is themed Healthy eating in the workplace.

“It is therefore important to know the appropriate portion size when food is dished up as it will assist to determine sensible and healthy portion sizes and curb overeating“ and Increased portion size, in other words, eating too much food is a major contributor to weight gain”, says Catherine Pereira of ADSA.

Meals offered in the workplace should follow the guidelines for healthy eating, for instance:

Employers should also ensure healthy snacks are available at workplace vending machines and kiosks, such as:

Healthy drinks should be provided at company events and through vending machines, including:

“We encourage employers to be proactive, and follow these suggestions,” says Linda Drummond, FSI Nutrition Consultant to the CGCSA. “The benefits that these initiatives will achieve are great for both employees and employers; nutrition-related worksite health promotion programmes have the potential to reduce obesity by 5-10%, thereby increasing labour productivity by 1-2%. The potential for such productivity gains are expected to be even more significant for larger companies.”
© Nutrition Week 2015