OF: Helen, tell me a little more about what you do as the Food Coach?
HH: As a nutritionist, I work with a wide range of people to help them move towards their health goals. That could cover anything from weight loss to managing conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or digestive symptoms. I start by assessing their health history to explore potential contributing factors to their present condition, and then create personalised nutrition plans for them. Additionally, I work within the corporate world for companies looking to improve the health of their employees as part of their wellness programmes.
OF: Could you tell me a little more about the link between nutrition and performance?
HH: We all know the importance of eating well, and the link that has to maintaining good health such as good weight and energy levels. There are also plenty of studies that show how healthy eating can reduce rates of depression, prevent diabetes, and other long-term conditions. Now research is telling us that employees with poor eating habits have lower productivity levels by up to 66% and that poor nutrition can lead to 50% more sickness absences a year. Coming from a corporate background, such a statistic offers a compelling case for why companies of all sizes should care about what their employees eat.
OF: It makes sense that in physical jobs, the link between nutrition and performance would be significant, but perhaps you can explain why it is important for all roles?
HH: People rightfully often think about what they eat for their health. However, understanding what food does inside the body, or how it makes us think, feel and behave can help to understand how it can affect performance. Essentially it comes down to energy – you need food as fuel to support your day, to have the energy to get up and go to work, get the kids to school, and so on. Whether you do a manual job or spend your day in meetings, people need energy to perform. If they become tired, or their energy levels fluctuate, it can quickly become harder to think straight and act decisively. It’s as simple as that. Therefore eating to support energy levels is critical to performance.
OF: There is so much conflicting information about what we should eat and why. What would you say are the important things to keep in mind?
HH: Food for energy and hence performance is about the best use of food groups (protein, carbohydrates and fats), particularly carbohydrates as these that directly influence our energy levels. Certain carbohydrates (such as white bread, pasta, cakes, sugary drinks) are fast releasing carbs because they hit the blood stream in the form of glucose quickly. This can give a quick burst of energy but the more rapidly glucose goes into the bloodstream, the more rapidly it is removed, usually resulting in a sudden dip in energy leaving feelings of tiredness, unable to concentrate and even feeling low in mood and an employee who is shattered is no good to any boss!
OF: So what do you recommend? How do we fuel ourselves for success?
HH: There are three easy steps that can be a great starting point to help support energy and concentration levels:
1- Simply switching from fast to slow release carbs from foods such as wholemeal varieties, oats, nuts and vegetables can help slow the release of sugar into the blood and help prevent energy crashes.
2 – Combining this with some protein can provide further help as these food can not only help to slow down the release of sugar into the blood stream but also can help you feel fuller and more satisfied for longer.
3 – Ensuring you consume small amounts of good quality fats from foods such as nuts, seeds and oily fish as these can help provide a sustained release of energy.
That said, when we eat can be just as important. Many people tend to graze all day long which can place lots of pressure on the body which can sometimes make it feel more tired. Recent research suggests that having three balanced meals (that consist of a good carbohydrate, protein and some good fat) each day can be sufficient for sustained energy and concentration throughout the day.
OF: What can HR Directors be doing to help support individual health and productivity?
HH: A lot of research points to the fact that diet-related worksite interventions, such as wellness programmes that incorporate nutrition can have positive effects on employees’ nutritional knowledge, food intake, and ultimately their health. Companies have an opportunity here to benefit immensely by taking time to educate employees on what foods do to the body, and the influence this can have on their daily behaviour, performance, and overall quality of health.
OF: To make that happen, HR can often need to persuade a sceptical CEO to take the matter seriously. What can you say to help in this process?
HH: The research certainly suggests it is worth taking seriously as it highlights that worksite interventions can have positive effects on the nutritional knowledge and food behaviours of employees and that a healthier workforce is likely to be more productive and spend less time off sick. Then there’s the ethical dimension, and the value in creating a culture that becomes synonymous with health and wellbeing that can aid in future recruitment strategies.
It also doesn’t need to be too costly or complicated to make this a reality as it simply comes down to educating employees. Such initiatives can include:
- Talks or seminars by experts in the field such as a nutritionist or health coach
- All round wellness programmes that include nutrition advice
- Nutritional awareness days
- Specific healthy eating initiatives such as Friday free fruit day
The research seems to suggest that these types of health programmes can have a real impact on productivity in the workplace, and therefore a measurable impact on any bottom line.