In the mood for change? Footprint Forum: Mood Food online report

The March Footprint Forum in association with Partners In Purchasing tackled the role of food in staff performance and wellbeing. And while the idea of ‘mood food’ is far from mainstream, more and more big businesses are looking at the concept, as David Burrows reports.

JAMES LIND is perhaps best-known for his work on scurvy – a disease once rife among sailors. Lind’s crude experiments, testing a range of remedies from vinegar to lemon juice, helped prove that citrus was a cure for scurvy. Also notable was the fact that, in 1747, these were some of the first clinical experiments in the history of medicine.

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However, they could arguably be heralded as the first example of the benefits of an employee health and wellbeing programme.

Over 250 years later and many companies have health and wellbeing initiatives in place. But how many of them place an emphasis on food? We spend most of our lives at work, with more and more of us eating breakfast, lunch and countless snacks in between as we work. And yet, for employers, food for staff has largely been an afterthought.

Until now.

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There’s a great understanding emerging of how well-targeted [health and wellbeing] programmes can be of benefit, for example in reducing absenteeism, increasing presenteeism, improving mo0d, motivation and loyalty and cutting company health costs,” said nutritionist Amanda Ursell.

“I’'ve been surprised by the desire in this agenda ... the top dogs are focussed on [their own] nutrition so they can deal with the stress of their jobs. But that can be passed down the chain.”

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Ursell was one of a number of speakers at a packed March Footprint Forum, all touting the benefits of better staff nutrition – how fat cats are falling in love with healthy diets, one might say – and the role that foodservice companies in providing it.

Things were kicked off by Matt Dawson, a man most famous for his rugby, but who is clearly growing into the role of ‘healthwise ambassador’ for Sodexo as smoothly as he did when tackling the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing competition or celebrity Masterchef.

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Winning diets

For some years now, nutrition and sport have gone hand in hand. But it wasn’t always the case, as Dawson explained. “Clive Woodward was instrumental [in changing things]. He brought in dieticians and nutritionists. It was a military operation but it left us in better physical shape than any other team [at the World Cup in 2003]. Hydration, he said, was key. “Lose 2% of your hydration and your concentration levels can fall by 10-15%. You lose the ability to make key decisions under pressure.”

 

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That could explain how Jonny Wilkinson was able to conjure up that magical last-minute drop goal to win the World Cup, but it can be equally important to those without a nation’s hopes resting on their shoulders.

 

As Ursell pointed out: “Just telling women how to get more iron into their diets could increase energy levels, help manage mood swings and enhance concentration levels. Iron really can have a profound effect on performance.”

 

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John Stein, emeritus professor of neuroscience at Magdalen College, Oxford, captivated the audience with his research into the relationship between diet and the brain. “Agood diet is crucial for proper neural growth,” he explained. “As such, diet deterioration is causing ‘mind change’ – and these changes are comparable to climate change in that they are costing us billions. Three quarters of the population eat no fish at all, and the food industry should be encouraging supplements due to this lack of fish in the diet.”

 

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While Stein’s presentation tested the intelligence at times with talk of neurones and magnocellular systems, there was also a simple message from him and others about education and balance. Of course, staff don’t want to be told what to eat, while employers don’t want to be seen as ‘big brother’. But that isn’t an excuse to do nothing.

 

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“We don’t need to take things to extremes,” said Ursell, who has delivered seminars to law firms and bankers in the City. “Some naughty things are ok, but it’s just knowing how much and when to eat these foods. A dark chocolate snack mid-morning can help you eat 18 less calories at lunchtime for example.”

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Opportunity for caterers

As such, caterers have a role to help clients teach staff to eat and drink well – a message that Jessica Colling from vielife kept returning to. Vielife has compiled some of the most extensive data around staff wellbeing (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/apr/01/chronic-sleep-deprivation-uk-staff). This includes one study which showed that the most healthy quartile of the workforce is seven hours more productive a week than the least healthy quartile. Another, involving 15,000 people in the UK and US, found that employees with poor nutritional balance reported 21% more sick-related absence and 11% lower productivity than healthier colleagues.

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“There’s a real opportunity to make a difference,” Colling told attendees. “As food providers you have an opportunity to make people healthier and improve the bottom line for businesses.”

Colling reeled out some worrying statistics: 18% of people report eating more than five portions of fruit and veg a day while 90% don’t eat six portions of fibre a day. Colling admitted that even for people who know they should be eating these things, it can be hard to get to the recommended numbers. But it’s worth it.

 

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“People with good nutritional scores have a 15% higher ‘mood score’, a 14% better physical activity score and 6% higher job satisfaction. Better nutrition can also help people manage their stress better.”

Further research by the consultancy shows how nutrition can boost productivity (http://www.vielife.com/compendium/en-us/productivity/38/good-health-status-boosts-employee-productivity) and how trimming staff waistlines can expand productivity (http://www.vielife.com/compendium/en-us/productivity/34/obesity-leads-to-lost-productive-time).

 

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Colling, among others, was quick to point out that much of the evidence to date shows the correlation between nutrition and performance. This is very different from causation: just because poor nutrition occurs alongside poor performance levels or increased sickness doesn’t mean that one causes the other – even if it seems to make sense.

 

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Nevertheless, the evidence on a correlation is building and it’s beginning to turn the heads of corporates. For years, the medical establishment dismissed Lind’s theories on scurvy and the benefits of citrus fruits until, in 1974, lemon juice was issued on board the Suffolk ship for a 23-week, non-stop voyage to India. There was no serious outbreak of scurvy and soon after the Admiralty recommended that lemon juice should be issued routinely to the whole fleet.

 

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Improvements to the health and wellbeing of today’s staff might be a little more complicated than Lind’s help for the sailors, but perhaps the results could be as profound.

 

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A full version of this report will be available in the June issue of Foodservice Footprint.

 

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