Common knowledge tells us that eating more fruits and vegetables, and cutting out processed foods is better than filling up on empty calories when it comes to managing weight and supporting overall health. However, the connection between food and well-being goes much deeper. And for employers, understanding the full scope of nutrition’s impact on well-being may be key to improving employee health and productivity.
How does that work? For starters, 95% of serotonin – the hormone that influences happiness, among other things – is produced in the gut. That means diet has a direct impact on mood. In addition, studies have found connections between a diet that is high in refined sugars and mood disorders such as depression.
Bottom line: your gut is smarter than you realize. In fact, the layers of nerve cells lining the gastrointestinal tract are frequently referred to as a second brain. Messages from those nerves connect directly to the brain, heart, lungs and other organs, as well as the endocrine, immune and other systems. That means the old adage “you are what you eat” is truer than people realize.
Given these connections, it’s clear that while basic nutrition is an effective tool for helping employees manage weight and improve energy levels, educating them on the role of food as medicine – also known as functional nutrition – can also improve the management of a surprising range of conditions.
4 benefits of functional nutrition
For employers who haven’t previously encountered functional nutrition, here are four benefits to helping your workforce understand the power of diet to reduce chronic pain, balance hormones and restore gut health.
Mitigate symptoms of chronic conditions
Annual healthcare costs for an individual with a chronic condition average $6,032, roughly five times the cost for a person without a chronic disease. That may mean big expenses for employers who provide health insurance, and it may impact productivity if an employee’s condition makes it difficult to focus or requires frequent doctor visits.
By educating employees on the connection between food and chronic conditions, employers can mitigate these cost increases. Once employees recognize that the immune system can react to an unhealthy diet in the same way it reacts to a bacterial infection, the impact of food choices becomes clearer.
Reducing the intake of pro-inflammatory foods such as red meat, white bread and sweetened beverages, and increasing the intake of whole grains, fish, fruits, green vegetables and olive oil may reduce inflammation, ease pain and otherwise reduce discomfort related to chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and rheumatoid arthritis, all of which contribute to increased healthcare costs for employees and employers.
Balance hormonal changes to reduce stress, boost energy and more
Hormone levels change as we age. For women, the transition through menopause and associated symptoms such as insomnia, irritability, weight gain and osteoporosis can be exhausting, frustrating, emotional and distracting. It can also have an impact at work, with nearly 1 million women leaving the workforce due to uncomfortable menopausal symptoms. That is a significant impact on institutional knowledge, and with the women who remain on the job taking an average of 32 weeks’ leave to manage symptoms, employers would be wise to understand and provide support for these employees.
Nutrition can help. Our bodies use specific nutrients from the foods we eat to produce hormones, then break them down and remove them when they’re no longer helpful. Employers can ease this transition by providing resources that educate employees on key nutrition strategies that can help manage the changes that occur naturally during menopause and, most importantly, help them feel better.
Manage gut disorders to increase productivity
More than 70 million Americans live with a functional gut disorder. That intestinal imbalance may lead to problems like insomnia, unintentional weight change, headaches and mood swings, all of which may impact employee productivity.
Eating a broad range of foods improves the diversity of your personal microbiome – the collection of bacteria, viruses and other microbes that help digest food, regulate the immune system, combat disease-causing bacteria and produce vitamins. Yet this diversity is lacking in most people’s diets.
Roughly 75% of the world’s food comes from just 12 plant and five animal species. Branching out with fermented foods, which are rich in beneficial bacteria, can strengthen your microbiome. Staying hydrated also helps, while eating more slowly improves digestion. Taken together, these steps to improve gut health can improve productivity by reducing the number of doctor visits employees require to manage GI issues and improve their focus during the workday.
Reduce the risk of dementia
Poor brain health may lead to “senior moments” for some but for others, it contributes to life-altering conditions including dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, which can effectively remove people from society, the workforce and their personal lives.
Dementia and other cognitive declines may reduce an employee’s productivity or even force them to leave the workforce altogether. This problem will only increase as the number of people diagnosed with dementia reaches an expected 78 million by 2030 and 139 million by 2050.
Diet is important here, too. Consumption of processed meat has been found to increase the relative risk of all dementias by 44% and Alzheimer’s disease specifically by 52%. Alternatively, eating high-quality foods that nourish the brain with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can help optimize cognitive function and reduce the risk of developing such diseases. As a rule of thumb, there is strong evidence that food that is good for the heart is also good for the head. Specifically, green, leafy vegetables; fish; berries and walnuts all support brain health.
The connection between nutrition and health is powerful, but not always thoroughly understood by employers or benefits professionals. By using internal communications to highlight the transformative power of functional nutrition or identifying outside resources such as video cooking classes that can teach employees how their food choices allow them to use their lunch break to boost their physical and mental health, employers can provide tools that help employees use food as medicine, as well as fuel.
By using workplace well-being initiatives to educate employees on the power of food as medicine, employers can support efforts to improve productivity, reduce medical spending and increase satisfaction. And that’s good news for everyone.