The New Dietary Guidelines: What do They Mean for Employee Wellness?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released new dietary guidelines for Americans a few weeks ago. (We’ll skip the obvious snarky comments about their impaired ability to guide us, given their bedfellow relationship with the meat and dairy boards.)

They created this document for policy makers’ and public health advocates’ use, but there’s a lot here for companies invested in creating a healthier workforce.

Early chapters cover key recommendations for the foods Americans need to increase and reduce and the way to balance caloric intake through physical activity. Later, in Chapter Six, they outline principles for “helping Americans make healthy choices.” These principles are:

  • Ensure that all Americans have access to nutritious foods and opportunities for physical activity.
  • Facilitate individual behavioral change through environmental strategies.
  • Set the stage for lifelong healthy eating, physical activity and weight management behaviors.

Helping people make healthier choices

In Chapter Six, they also outline their social-ecological model, which, at its heart, recognizes that to help people make healthier choices, we need to make it possible for them to do so.

Although individual behavior change is critical, a truly effective and sustainable improvement in the Nation’s health will require a multi-sector approach that applies the SocialEcological Model to improve the food and physical activity environment. This type of approach emphasizes the development of coordinated partnerships, programs, and policies to support healthy eating and active living. Interventions should extend well beyond providing traditional education to individuals and families about healthy choices, and should help build skills, reshape the environment, and re-establish social norms to facilitate individuals’ healthy choices.”

I highlighted the statement above because I think it’s key. The way I see it, the first-generation wellness effort is about delivering information and motivating employees to adopt certain behaviors. The second-generation wellness effort will need to deliver on the USDA’s three principles, disrupting the workplace while continuing to invest in the individual’s ability to help themselves.

Physical activity at work: a harder nut to crack

Companies can start by ensuring that their cafeterias and vending machines offer more (only?!) healthy options. Replace the white bread with whole wheat bread. Fill the plate with fruit and vegetables, not chips. Work with a health-focused vending machine company. They can further direct employees’ choices with subsidies and strategic cafeteria design. And why not help build general knowledge and know-how with cooking courses, on-site gardens and other hands-on nutrition education?

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Providing opportunities for regular activity is the harder nut to crack. Our offices aren’t designed for movement, and our productivity and face-time minded cultures can’t equate more physical activity with greater output.

Inroads are being made with discounted and on-site fitness centers, walking paths, standing or walking desks. Lots of wellness efforts include physical challenges that span two to to four weeks. It seems to me that we need more disruption in office design and work flow to increase regular movement at work and during the day, in general. I wish the USDA provided more thoughts here.

When you consider the amount of hours we spend working, you realize that companies have a great deal of control over their employees’ health — for better or worse. For the company willing to consider the USDA’s key recommendations and take a hard stand on their role in improving employee health, the opportunities are plenty.

This was originally published on Fran Melmed’s Free-Range Communication blog.