As healthy eating habits take a more prominent role on the nation’s public health agenda, researchers at Brown University are exploring ways for workplaces to encourage employees to make wise food choices with the goal of upping productivity and cutting health care costs through better eating habits.
Beginning in February, in a study titled Good to Go, researchers from the Providence, Rhode Island, university will set up work-site produce stands selling fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables to all employees for a year. Twenty-four companies in Rhode Island and nearby states, each with 200 or more employees, will participate in the study, which is funded by the National Cancer Institute.
Researchers say the stands will be set up once a week, typically for about four hours. Employees will be able to purchase produce to eat at work or take home. Because the vendor is a wholesaler that deals directly with local farmers whenever possible, the produce will be fresher and cost less than comparable supermarket items.
For participating companies, the study offers plenty of benefits, says Kim Gans, research professor of community health at Brown’s Alpert Medical School.
“The biggest benefit is receiving health-promotion programming for free for a full year,” she said. “Other studies show that these types of programs improve morale and give employees a better perception of the company in terms of caring about their health.”
The hope is that encouraging employees to eat more fruits and vegetables will eventually pay off in healthier employees and reduced insurance premiums, she says.
“One of our priorities is addressing the root causes of disease, and nutrition is a basic root cause that results in productivity decreases and medical claims increases,” says Michael Vittoria, vice president of human resources for Sperian Protection, a study participant based in Smithfield, Rhode Island. Sperian specializes employee health and safety issues in the workplace.
“Encouraging healthy eating habits is an increasingly important issue for employers because of the obesity epidemic,” says Scott Braithwaite, a physician who is chief, section of value and comparative effectiveness at New York University School of Medicine. “Obese employees are likely to have more obesity-related illnesses like arthritis and diabetes, which increases their health care costs and may decrease their productivity.”
Diabetes has become a major health concern for employers. One in 10 Americans has Type 2 diabetes and that number is expected to grow to one in three by 2050, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. One way to tackle diabetes is to reduce obesity through exercise and a diet that includes fruits and vegetables, according to the American Diabetes Association.
In addition to diabetes, says Amy Anderson, a researcher in the Nutrition and Food Science Department at the University of Maryland, “a multitude of studies link diets high in vegetables and fruits to decreased risk of a number of chronic diseases and adverse health conditions.”
Despite such evidence, the nation has yet to fully embrace healthy eating habits. Recent CDC figures suggest only one-third of Americans eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. To increase consumption, the CDC is calling for increased availability and greater affordability of fresh produce—goals the new Brown University study aims to achieve.
Previous workplace studies to influence employees’ eating habits have shown modest but positive results. A 2009 study at the Arkansas Health Department found that a Web-based wellness program combining incentives and health promotion led participants to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption. So, too, did a 2001 study by researchers at the University of Washington at 28 Seattle work sites.
“Bringing produce stands into the workplace is a reasonable thing to study,” Braithwaite says. “Ultimately, employers can use these experiments to determine which weight-control measures are the best long-term investments.”
The new study divides the 24 employers into three groups. One employer will have a produce stand only, another will have the stand plus an educational component related to healthy eating, and a third will only have an educational and health promotion component.
“We want to see if bringing in a produce market is in and of itself enough to change behavior,” Gans says. “We’ll also look at productivity measures and employees’ perceptions about how much the company cares about their health, their feelings about the climate of the company, and if the program is conducive to improving health.”
She expects study results to be available in 2014.
In addition to Sperian Protection, several other employers have signed up for the study, including the Narragansett Bay Commission of Providence, Rhode Island; pen and watchmaker A.T. Cross Co. in Lincoln, Rhode Island; and gold and silver fabricating firm Stern-Leach and technology firm Sensata Technologies Inc., both of Attleboro, Massachusetts. The researchers are continuing to recruit firms of 200 or more employees in or near Rhode Island to participate.
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