How can we improve eating practices at the workplace to contribute to achieving optimal nutrition status for all South Africans? Unhealthy workplace eating behaviour is believed to be playing a role in South Africa’s burgeoning obesity problem. The 2012 South African Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES) showed local obesity levels have skyrocketed. The prevalence of overweight and obesity combined is now 65% for females and 31% for males.

This year’s National Nutrition Week runs from 9 to 15 October 2015 and is focusing on “Healthy Eating in the workplace”, aiming to encourage employees to make healthy food choices at the office, and employers and corporate food providers to make healthy meals easily available in the workplace. This campaign is a joint initiative by the Department of Health, The Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), the Nutrition Society of South Africa (NSSA), the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA), the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA) and the Consumer Education Project of Milk SA (CEP).

Why NIOH supports and endorses this initiative
Meals employees eat at work influence their productivity and their risk of occupational conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer. “Many workers consume at least half of their meals and snacks during work hours. This makes the workplace an important setting to promote healthy eating by creating an environment where healthy food choices are readily accessible through canteens, function catering or vending machines,” says Lynn Moeng, Chief-Director: Health Promotion, Nutrition and Oral Health at the Department of Health.

According to the Department of Health press release and in line with Outcome 2: A long and Healthy life for all South Africans, The National Development Plan, Vision 2030, commits government to improving long-term health outcomes by prioritising, amongst other things, nutrition and physical activity.
Furthermore, the Department of Health and several government departments (education; sport and recreation; transport; cooperative governance and traditional affairs; trade and industry; and public service and administration) have committed to support and strengthen efforts to prevent and reduce the prevalence of obesity by 10% by 2020.  One of the ways this reduction will be attained is by strengthening settings-based interventions such as in schools and workplaces.
For employers unhealthy eating behaviour at workplaces means less productive employees. Employees with an unhealthy diet have been found to have a 66% increased risk of lower productivity than those who ate a healthy diet. Globally it has been found that obesity also generates indirect costs for employers by increasing workers’ compensation claims and related lost workdays, absenteeism and disability in people aged 50-69. The productivity costs attributable to obesity are significant, and the indirect costs of obesity could well outweigh the direct medical costs.
It’s for these reasons National Nutrition Week 2015, which takes place from 9 to 15 October 2015, is themed Healthy eating in the workplace.
Meals offered in the workplace should follow the guidelines for healthy eating, for instance:
  • Ensure that there is a variety of foods available. For instance, meals for lunch should comprise one meat dish (with a vegetarian option), one starch option, two vegetable options, one fruit option and water. If a platter is served, this should include a mixture of fruits, vegetables, starches and meats rather than having meat-only or bread-only platters;
  • Provide sandwiches made with an assortment of whole grain breads (wholewheat, seed, rye, brown), pita, buns/rolls or wraps;
  • Choose lean meats for main meals, deli platters and sandwich fillings. Limit the use of processed meats like viennas and polony, as they are high in fat and salt;
  • Provide vegetables prepared with little or no added fat, sugar or salt;
  • Ensure inclusion of beans and legumes in dishes or as salads.
Employers should also ensure healthy snacks are available at workplace vending machines and kiosks, such as:
  • Unflavoured and low-salt popcorn
  • Low salt whole wheat crackers
  • Unsalted nut trail mix
  • Fruit in tubs (kiosks)
  • Dried fruit, fruit rolls, fruit bars (no added sugar)
Healthy drinks should be provided at company events and through vending machines, including:
  • Water, still or sparkling/soda water
  • Tea, coffee (regular or decaffeinated), sugar/sugar substitutes, milk (low-fat, 2%, 1% fat or fat-free milk only)
  • Low-fat UHT milk (200ml packs)
  • Low-energy beverages i.e. light/zero/diet drinks (200ml)
“We encourage employers to be proactive, and follow these suggestions,” says Linda Drummond, FSI Nutrition Consultant to the CGCSA. “The benefits that these initiatives will achieve are great for both employees and employers; nutrition-related worksite health promotion programmes have the potential to reduce obesity by 5-10%, thereby increasing labour productivity by 1-2%. The potential for such productivity gains are expected to be even more significant for larger companies.”
This article is adapted from  the Nutrition Week website and Department of Health Newsroom article on