The Importance of Nutrition Education

Businessweek ran an article a week ago that included a poll on common implementations within wellness programs. Smoking cessation classes and gym memberships/facilities are right near the top, which doesn’t surprise me. They’ve been wellness program mainstays for many years.

I was pleasantly surprised by the over-75% that have web resources for healthy living. In our tech-driven world, more mobile by the second, it’s a good idea to have resources for people on the go. (Yes, wellness games are included.)

What disappointed me about the poll results was the relative dearth of nutrition classes.

Only 54% of the wellness programs surveyed offer nutrition classes. Fifty-four percent.

Meanwhile, the media, the government, and everybody in between is bemoaning the health care crisis, the sorry state of Americans’ dietary habits, and the ever-rising rates of overweight and obesity.

Something doesn’t quite add up here.

Maybe it’s the fact that certain subsidies (corn, soy, and wheat, among others) make processed foods cheap and unrefined, natural foods more expensive.

Maybe it’s the fact that nutrition education is notoriously poor in schools. I honestly learned no real lessons on nutrition in my health classes. It was, “Here’s the food pyramid. This is what you should eat.” There was no education about the effects of specific foods on the body. There was no education about how excess sugar, refined flours, and other junk food can aggravate acne, cause not-so-nice-looking hair, and alter one’s taste preferences. (Had I truly been educated on this, I can guarantee that I wouldn’t have eaten as much junk as I did. What guy doesn’t want to look good in high school?)

Maybe it’s the endless jerking of the population back and forth over food. Fad diet here, fad diet there. Scientists say Food A can kill you one day, yet say it can help prevent heart disease a week later. Entire macronutrients are demonized for decades, yet when research comes out to repudiate the dogma, it is ignored.

It could be any number of other things, but the fact remains: nutrition education in this country sucks.

Yet a large percentage of the population has no idea about any of this. The prevailing attitude in health care, in doctors’ offices, and in the public is that eating whatever you want is pretty much okay. If something goes wrong, it’s no big deal. Get some medicine or pills from the doctor, who likely was never educated about nutrition in medical school. Look into gastric bypass or lap band surgery. Get insulin for the diabetes. The entire system is reactive, geared toward disease management and not prevention. It’s sending costs through the roof.

It is often said that health starts in the kitchen, or that you can’t out-exercise a bad diet. That is why, if your wellness program really has any hope of making a lasting impact on people or your bottom line, it needs some form of nutrition education.

It can be as simple as a member of your wellness team compiling or writing nutrition articles for the wellness newsletter. It can be as complex as hiring a team of corporate nutrition educators (dietitians, holistic nutritionists, wellness coaches, etc.) who are on-call to help employees.

Make sure your employees are truly educated about nutrition, not browbeaten about “eating right”. “Eating right” is evident to anyone. People know what they “should” eat to be healthy, but if there’s one thing guaranteed to make people NOT want to do something, it’s telling them they should do it without giving any tangible reasons why it benefits them.

Much of the time, though, they don’t know why they should eat those foods beyond “they’re healthier and I’ll probably feel better”.

Whatever type of nutrition education you have, it should offer a balanced perspective that extols the benefits of real, unprocessed foods. The best way to effect change is to frame benefits from the employee’s perspective.

Explain why too much sugar is wreaking havoc on your intern’s skin and causing acne, and what eliminating junk food would do to improve his attractiveness to that girl he likes.

Explain why eliminating some grains can help Ellen from Accounting reverse her stomach condition and get off the medications that cost her $400 a month.

Explain why getting plenty of healthy fats will help Mark from Sales think better, be more productive, and have the energy at the end of the day to play with his two little boys.

Nutrition education aimed at the issues that affect employees will always beat nutrition lecturing. And with proper education, people can start making better food choices. They get healthier and reduce their medical expenses, sick time, and presenteeism. Even better, your company’s expenses go down.

How does your wellness program handle the tricky waters of nutrition education?

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