Public health expert ringing the alarm on workplace nutrition

By Danielle Masterson

- Last updated on GMT

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Getty Images

Related tags Mental health Cognition wellness Nutrition

One health official says more research is needed to explore the link between dietary supplements and productivity in the workplace.

Adam Drewnowski, PhD, director, Center for Public Health Nutrition Professor of Epidemiology, University of Washington, said goals cannot be accomplished without a well-nourished labor force. He also highlighted how few studies on workplace interventions for health have used productivity or work performance as the endpoint.

Physical and mental health should be addressed 

“Even though improvement of productivity may have been the ultimate goal, relatively few interventions in high-income countries have explored the likely impact of improved dietary nutrient density on workplace performance.” ​Drewnowski continued, “Given that optimal nutrition benefits both physical and mental health, interventions to improve diet quality ought to have a measurable impact on the productivity of the labor force.”


Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said that one in five adults in the United States reported having a mental illness in 2016 and 71% reported experiencing at least one symptom of stress. These mental health issues can interfere with employee productivity and lead to higher rates of disability and unemployment.

Physically, the outlook is even more daunting, with over half of American adults expected to be obese by 2030.

Workplace wellness incentives 

A recent physician survey by Sermo​ found that 85% of physicians think insurance companies should cover dietician visits to help educate overweight patients on proper nutrition even if they do not have any metabolic abnormalities and 65% of doctors recommend that employers give employees a paid exercise hour.

A research team from a 2008 study in the UK​ found that of 200 employees, those who had access to and used a company gym were more productive during the day, and went home feeling more satisfied on the days they exercised during regular work hours.

Another study​ showed that regardless of age, people experience “immediate benefits” for cognition following “a single bout of moderate exercise,” such as 15 minutes of moderately intense cycling on a stationary bike. These findings suggest that working out during the day could be even better than bookending gym time before or after the office.

Drewnowski told NutraIngredients-USA​ that he is very much in favor of workplace wellness programs. “Better health and fitness improve quality of life, there is no question. I am sure that employers intended the benefits to translate into better productivity; yet workplace performance was not measured directly. So here is a research gap that ought to be addressed.” 

To highlight that sparsity, Drewnowski presented his findings in the academic journal Nutrition Reviews, which examined the evidence linking workplace dietary interventions with workplace productivity measures. 

Supplementation in the workplace

Drewnowski also addressed a potential role for supplementation in delivering improved workplace performance. Noting that studies carried out to-date had looked at dietary interventions only in relation to food, he suggested that their scope should be widened to include nutrition obtained from elsewhere, including food supplements.

“Dietary interventions (in rich countries) have focused on fewer calories and more vegetables and fruit. Interventions in poor countries were intended to provide more calories and a more nutrient rich diet.”

Drewnowski said that that improvements in dietary nutrient density can be achieved in different ways: “What we want is to improve the nutrient-to-calorie ratio, so here is where vitamins, minerals and dietary ingredients come in. Even in rich countries, too many people have diets composed of refined grains, sugars, and fats — and minimal nutritional value. Improving dietary nutrient density without extra calories is the point.”

“Nutrition-driven economy”

Drewnowski told NutraIngredients-USA​ that his review article aimed to link dietary nutrient density with productivity, while pointing out that research gaps remain.

He suggested taking a two-pronged approach to future research to promote a “nutrition-driven economy,” recommending large-scale observational studies that include questions about workplace productivity in addition to questions about health outcomes.

“Second, there is a need for randomized controlled trials of supplement use in the workplace, with both health and productivity as outcomes. Including workplace productivity measures in standard health surveys would help establish the link between nutrition interventions and local and national economies.”

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Source: Nutrition Reviews

Vol 78, Issue 3, March 2020,

“Impact of nutrition interventions and dietary nutrient density on productivity in the workplace”

Author: Adam Drewnowski

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