Retrofit Blog

Is Your Company's Cafeteria Making Your Employees Fat?

Retrofit Weighs in on How to Create a Culture of Health

August 6, 2014

Studies have proven that obesity is linked with a range of serious diseases including diabetes, stroke and cancer. One of the best ways to reduce the risks of contracting these and other illnesses is to keep your weight down. By implementing strategies during the work day, you can actually improve your health and productivity at the same time.

Despite the fact that we are bombarded constantly with information about health, Americans are still getting fatter and fatter. For employers, this translates into higher healthcare costs, increased sick days and reduced productivity. In short, obesity has a big – but largely hidden – impact on a company's bottom line.

Employees are faced with more than 200 food choices a day. Most consumers spend the majority of their time at the office, which means that many of these food options beckon from the corporate cafeteria.

While you can't tell a person what to eat, one way employers can have a big impact is by changing the offerings at the company cafeteria. It's up to management to select food service vendors or, in the case of some companies, cafeteria chefs and staff. You can work with these folks to overhaul your food options to emphasize healthier food and de-emphasize the stuff that makes you fat.

To help companies update their offerings, I asked the Retrofit on-staff registered dietitians to develop a set of recommendations that companies can follow.

For starters, immediately start educating and informing employees about their food options, even before you make menu changes. Posting calorie counts on the menu can have a big effect, according to our nutritional experts.

For instance, a single slice of regular pizza is 250 calories, or about half the total calories one should consume at any meal. Let employees know that instead of a second slice, ordering a side salad and a piece of fruit is a much leaner and nutritious 500-calorie meal. Meanwhile, a cheeseburger and fries can pack a whopping 1,000 calories, and a burrito with cheese and guacamole checks in at 750 calories. Giving your employees this information will open their eyes and provide them the opportunity to make better choices on their own.

If you are willing to take your plan for employee health a step further, another option is to use money as an incentive. You might charge less for healthier meals (or more for the high-calorie items) and offer free snacks such as apples and trail mix next to for-sale sugary options. If you already have a wellness program in place, you can add points to your employees' accounts for healthy food choices (If you don't have a corporate wellness program that includes weight loss education, Retrofit can help with that).

Our registered dietitians suggest a company cafeteria menu should be filled with leafy greens, fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, legumes such as chickpeas and pinto beans, and "good" oils such as olive and canola. But if you put these foods out next to the cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza and candy bars, chances are that the typical employee will choose the latter.

Update your menu options by switching to whole-grain pastas and breads instead of white-flour counterparts. Offer mostly lean meats and low-fat cheeses at the sandwich counter, as well as lots of veggie toppings. Add whole grain tortillas and lettuce cups to the sandwich-making options. Insist that your chefs make recipes that include vegetables such as eggplant, spinach and squash, whole-grain wheat, grains such as barley, oats and rye, and legumes such as lentils and black beans.

"In addition, find ways to steer workers to the healthier choices," says Retrofit Registered Dietitian Stefanie Painter. Put bigger plates next to the salad bar, and cut back on higher fat salad toppings such as bacon bits and shredded cheese, replacing them with tasty low-fat alternatives such as banana peppers, pickles, and 1/4 cup chickpeas or edamame. Meanwhile, serve high-calorie meals on smaller plates and in smaller portions.

In the break room, remove the candy bar racks and replace them with high-quality energy bars, apples, bananas, low-sugar trail mix and low-salt nuts. Replace your current chip selection with baked chips and cut back the bag size to their smallest offerings (many chips come in two-serving packages that many people consume in one shot, assuming it's the right portion).

These changes don't have to cost a lot, but they can have a major impact on labor and healthcare costs. In addition to the monetary benefits, you'll also be teaching your workforce about better food choices, which will show a commitment to their well-being both in the office and in their lives.

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Jeff Hyman Chief Executive Officer

Jeff is a serial entrepreneur with a relentless passion for creating innovative companies & brands. He is driven by the belief that every individual is capable of doing incredible things once given the opportunity and knowledge. He holds a BS from The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from The Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.

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