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Healthy Eating at Work

Why should a workplace be concerned about healthy eating?

When a workplace can help employees to make wise food choices, as part of a workplace health program, it can influence the person’s long-term health and wellness.

Together - healthy eating and active living - combined with a positive outlook can lead to:

  • Reduced risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer.
  • Elevated mood, energy and self-esteem.
  • Reduced anxiety and stress.
  • Opportunities to spend enjoyable time with family and friends.

How do you start a 'healthy eating' program?

While it's most important for an employer to provide a safe and healthy workplace, it's also important to encourage healthy lifestyles among their employees. Healthy eating programs can be an important step. They can bring lots of people together to learn how to improve their health both at work and at home. As always, these programs should be part of a complete workplace health program and should not take resources or attention away from workplace hazards that may be present.

Before you start:

No matter how much you plan or make people aware, healthy eating programs are voluntary - not everyone will join or be interested. Survey employees to help you decide what types and levels of programs to offer.

When planning a health program, be sure you know the interests of your audience. In this case:

  • Know why people are interested in a healthy eating program. Are participants looking for general nutrition information, or more specific programs such as heart health?
  • Be sure to consider what types of programs have been offered in the past. Which programs worked? Which did not?
  • Know exactly who your target audience is.
  • Plan when will the program be offered (seasonal, or all year).
  • Identify who people can go to if they have individual questions or want more help.

What should a healthy eating program focus on?

Workplaces that are going to start a healthy eating program should focus on the main messages from the Canada's Food Guide. They should also make sure that wherever their employees get their food - whether its vending machines, canteens, or cafeterias - that these venues should offer some healthier food choices.

Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide suggests:

  • Eat at least one dark green and one orange vegetable each day.
  • Choose vegetables and fruit prepared with little or no added fat, sugar or salt.
  • Have vegetables and fruit more often than juice.
  • Make at least half of your grain products whole grain each day.
  • Choose grain products that are lower in fat, sugar or salt.
  • Drink skim, 1% or 2% milk each day.
  • Select lower fat milk alternatives.
  • Have meat alternatives such as beans, lentils, and tofu often.
  • Eat at least two Food Guide servings of fish each week.
  • Select lean meat and alternatives prepared with little or no added fat or salt.
  • Be active every day.
  • Satisfy your thirst with water.

What are sample topics for a workplace healthy eating program?

When offering nutrition information at the workplace, be sure to offer a wide range of options. Topics for programs may include:

  • Understanding the basics.
  • Weight management and body image.
  • Fad diets.
  • Fats and cholesterol.
  • Salt reduction.
  • Planning balanced meals for the whole family.
  • Aging well.
  • Making smart choices while grocery shopping and reading food labels.
  • Programs for specific health conditions (e.g., diabetes, heart conditions, etc.).
  • Healthy eating on the run.
  • Vegetarian eating.

Some more specific options for a workplace healthy eating program are:

  • Offer material for employees to take home to help them make healthier choices when planning meals. For example:
    • Provide a sample shopping list and a plan for the week's meals you can make from that list.
    • Have handouts of the Canada's Food Guide.
  • Provide information about how to make healthier food choices when shopping, ordering in restaurants, etc.
  • Teach people how to read and understand food labels.
  • Provide cooking tips for making healthy foods.
  • Post a list of local restaurants that offer balanced food menus, dietary options, and dietary information such as calories per portion.
  • Invite a speaker to a 'lunch-n-learn' session.
  • Have "theme" weeks or months.
  • Stock vending machines with healthier options.
  • Arrange for the on-site cafeteria to offer a range of healthy food choices.
  • Have a refrigerator and microwave at work so people can bring healthy lunches from home.
  • When lunches or drinks are provided at meetings, be sure to provide healthy choices.
  • Arrange for a group to go to a weight management program together, or have the program come to your office at a convenient time.
  • Give people a way to share healthy recipes with each other by using Intranet, e-mail, or posters.
  • Provide information about how to use low-fat ingredients in favourite recipes.
  • Organize a potluck lunch at work featuring healthy food choices. Try a multicultural day.
  • Offer incentives, if people are interested.
  • Offer a new tip or goal for each week, such as:
    • I will eat 7 fruits or vegetables each day.
    • I will eat breakfast every morning.
    • I will have an extra piece of fruit every day.

Does the workplace influence how people eat?

Yes. Always remember that the workplace environment influences the health of its employees. For example, if a healthy eating program is offered, remember to look at where the employees eat their lunch. A safe and clean eating area is a requirement under most occupational health and safety laws. Beyond this, it is important to look at what is offered at vending machines and staff cafeterias. If you don't look at the larger picture to see how the workplace itself influences the eating patterns of the employees, the program will not work as well as it could.

Be sure the workplace supports healthy eating programs by providing time for employees to go to information sessions, offering appropriate foods in the cafeteria and vending machines, and by providing refrigerators and microwaves so that meals can be stored and prepared appropriately.

What are some tips for snacks to keep at work?

Store in your desk or lockerStore in the fridgeOn the Road
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Dried fruit / Canned fruit
  • Juice box
  • Rice cakes
  • Cereal
  • Granola bars
  • Peanut butter
  • Canned fish
  • Canned fruit (in water or light syrup)
  • Whole grain bagels / Bread
  • Bran muffins
  • Low-fat yoghurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Fresh fruit
  • Raw vegetables
  • Low-fat cheese
  • Milk
  • Salad greens
  • Baby carrots
  • Celery sticks
  • Bagel bits
  • Rice cakes
  • Apples
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Low salt pretzels
  • Nuts

(Adapted from the article Healthy Snacks for Adults. Dietitians of Canada.)

How can meetings and other work functions help employees gain healthy eating habits?

SituationTry to LimitTry Instead
  • Donuts
  • Large muffins
  • Cookies
  • Cream and sugar
  • Small muffins
  • Individual low fat yoghurt
  • English muffin
  • Fresh fruit
  • Juices / Water
  • Milk and alternative sweetners
Vending machines / Catering Trucks
  • Danish
  • Chocolate bars
  • French fries
  • Pop
  • Chips
  • Juices / Water
  • Low salt pretzels
  • Sandwiches
  • Milk
  • Soup
  • Fruit
  • Cereal boxes
  • Yoghurt
  • Whole grain breads
Hectic Schedule / Long Hours
  • Chips
  • Cookies
  • Coffee with cream
  • Hot dogs
  • Pizza with double cheese and pepperoni
  • Fresh fruit
  • English muffins
  • Raw vegetables
  • Salads with lower-fat dressing
  • Lean sliced meats
  • Milk
  • Yoghurt
On the road / Lunch Meetings
  • Chips
  • Fried foods
  • Large burgers
  • Salads loaded with dressing
  • Small plain burgers
  • Whole grain bagels
  • Cereal bars
  • Whole grain crackers and cheese
  • Juice / Water
  • Turkey sandwiches
  • Pizza with ham and vegetables

(Source: Dieticians of Canada)

Do some jobs have specific nutrition concerns?

In most cases, no. Most jobs today do not require the employee to eat any additional calories to compensate for physical activity at work. The exception may be very physical work such as people who lift or carry heavy loads most of the day, such as shovelling, sawing trees by hand, farm work, etc. If you have concerns about meeting your nutritional needs, ask a dietitian or your family doctor for advice.

Should a workplace offer salt and fluid supplements when individuals are working in hot environments?

A person working at a high pace or in a very hot environment loses water and salt through sweat. This loss should be made up by having the worker consume more water and salt. Fluid intake should equal fluid loss. On average, about one litre of water each hour may be required to replace the fluid loss. Plenty of cool (10-15°C) drinking water should be available on the job site and workers should be encouraged to drink water every 15 to 20 minutes even if they do not feel thirsty.

Many people opt for sport drinks, fruit juice, etc. Drinks specially designed to replace body fluids and electrolytes may be taken but for most people, they should be used in moderation. They may be of benefit for workers who have very physically active occupations but keep in mind they may add unnecessary sugar or salt to your diet. Fruit juice or sport and electrolyte drinks, diluted to half the strength with water, is an option. Drinks with alcohol or caffeine should never be taken, as they dehydrate the body. For most people, water is the most efficient fluid for re-hydration.

A worker used to, or acclimatized to, lifting heavy loads or working in the heat sweats more "efficiently" - they sweat sooner and sweat more, but they lose less salt in their sweat than labourers who are not used to such work. For this reason, the salt in a normal diet is usually enough to maintain the electrolyte balance - and keep the body working well. For unacclimatized workers who are not used to manual labour or working in the heat, and who will therefore lose more salt in their sweat, they may wish to use extra salt in food. Salt tablets are not a good idea, however, because the salt does not enter the body system as fast as water or other fluids. Too much salt can cause higher body temperatures and can also make someone feel thirsty or sick. Workers on salt-restricted diets should talk to their doctor about how much salt they need for their job.

Are there some fluids that aren't good for drinking in hot environments?

Some drinks can cause more urine output than the amount of fluid consumed. Avoid or limit caffeinated drinks such as coffee and some sodas.

Where can I get more information about healthy eating?

This document has covered some of the basics of a healthy eating program. For more information you may wish to contact one of the following:

Health Canada: The Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion - serves as a focal point for nutrition and has information on the following topics:

  • Canada's Food Guide
  • Dietary Reference Intakes
  • Nutrition Labelling
  • Vitality
  • Healthy Weights

The Dietitians of Canada

(Adapted from: Workplace Health and Wellness Guide. CCOHS)

Document last updated on February 1, 2017

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Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, CCOHS does not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current. CCOHS is not liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the information.