‘Traffic light’ coding on workplace meals could cut obesity

Academics behind a healthy eating study for employees in large firms are in talks with State agencies and private companies about rolling out their programme which they claim will result in healthier workers.

The research team behind Food Choice at Work (FCW) has already had discussions with interested parties on workplace health policies.

The researchers, led by Fiona Geaney of University College Cork, began the study in summer 2012 by looking at workplace eating options and the general health of more than 800 employees in four multinational firms operating in the Cork area.

It then conducted follow-up assessments of their health at intervals of three to four months and found that changes implemented to how food was prepared, general food options in canteens, and limiting portion size had positively affected BMI statistics among those still involved with the study.

Around one third of the initial sample group of 540 workers who consented for their data to be used dropped out of the study within the first year, but that was mainly due to one of the four companies restructuring its work campus.

Dr Geaney said the workplace was an ideal setting to implement dietary interventions as most adults spend approximately two thirds of their waking hours at work, as well as depending on it to provide many of their daily meals.

The research involved individual nutrition consultations, group nutrition sessions, promotion of nutritional information in the workplace, and ‘traffic light’ coding to daily menus and vending machines indicating the levels of fat, sugar, and salt in meals.

The programme also analysed menus and recommended modifications per meal, such as reducing the amount of stock used or the removal of cream, followed by taste testing, and agreeing the modifications with managers and caterers, who also received training. Portion size was also reduced and healthier alternatives were strategically positioned in canteens.

The programme was rolled out in two phases, the first taking up to four weeks in which menu analysis and modification and staff training took place. The second phase included coding food on the basis of fat, sugar, and salt content.

Those behind the study said it helped reduce absenteeism, improved productivity and efficiency among a workforce which they said also experienced a boost in morale and an enhanced sense of loyalty.

FCW is now a UCC spin-out company, of which Dr Geaney is CEO. She said it would focus on delivering the FCW programme to corporates in Ireland and internationally.

Work on the project was funded by the HRB Centre for Diet and Health Research and Dr Geaney said if it was adopted by healthcare/workplace stakeholders and policy makers it may reduce the prevalence and economic burden of diet-related disease both nationally and internationally.

By the evaluation stage at seven to nine months, the study found the total daily fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugars intake had been significantly reduced, resulting in “small but significant falls in BMI”, but there were no significant changes in waist circumference and blood pressure.

Dr Geaney said: “We are not looking for dramatic weight loss, it is slow, sustained weight loss.”

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