A few years ago, Lynn Rossy's boss at the University of Missouri came into her office and told her, "I want you to solve the obesity problem in this country." Dr. Rossy, a health psychologist, was naturally taken aback, and the challenge didn't seem much less daunting when it became clear she was only expected to tackle the obesity problem at her workplace.
Poor eating habits are not normally considered a workplace issue. But the consequences are. Poor eating habits can effect energy and productivity, lead to illness and time away from work, and increase corporate medical insurance premiums. Dr. Rossy believes that workplaces need to face up to poor eating habits and obesity among their employees, and consider the Eat for Life program she pioneered at the university.
Her research found that employers have increasingly offered worksite wellness programs to employees and their families, but success has been mixed, with a recent review showing only about half had much of an impact on diet and exercise. As she delved into the diets and other programs available, she found what most of us already know: They don't work, at least for the long term.
She focused on women in her effort, aware of statistics showing 6 per cent had often engaged in fasting for the purpose of weight loss in the past three months, 18 per cent had succumbed to overeating, and nearly 30 per cent had experienced loss of control over eating. She became intrigued by something called intuitive eating, which teaches healthy patterns by putting people in touch with body cues, distinguishing between physical and emotional pangs of hunger.
But given her background in mindfulness – she teaches yoga and founded the university's Mindfulness Practice Center – she decided to weave that into her workplace program. If people are to be aware of the body's cues about food, after all, and distinguish between false and accurate signals, they must be mindful. "I believe mindfulness is key to behavioural change," she said in an interview. And she did get behavioural change in her workplace.
It's important to stress that her program, unlike those of most workplaces, was not a diet program. She is not a fan of diets, and contends that when workplaces use that approach to tackle the issue, the results will inevitably be limited and tricky.
First, employees with problematic eating patterns may or may not have obvious weight issues, so they can get missed in any diet program. As well, diet programs focusing on caloric restriction are ineffective, with many producing only moderate, temporary weight loss. Dieting may result in rebound overeating or stress-driven binge behaviour, with people regaining the weight they have lost, if not more.
"Employer-based health promotion programs need new approaches that do not produce these unintended consequences and long-term relapse," she and graduate student Hannah Bush wrote in a report on their program.
The 10-week program led to a significant difference between the control group and Eat for Life participants in intuitive eating and body appreciation, and lower levels of problematic eating behaviours. As expected, mindfulness seemed to be a key factor in gaining those results.
"By the time people aren't very old they have been conditioned to eat in certain ways. One of the biggest problems is they feel they have to finish [everything on] their plate. It's hard to change that. But mindfulness makes you aware of these habits," she said in the interview.
She stressed that a 10-week program can't solve the problem. Some people dropped out, as with all such programs. And controlling bad eating behaviour is a long-term pursuit. "I am glad we called it Eating for Life because you have to go through this for a longer period," she said.
She cites six basics for mindful eating (that form the acronym BASICS):
Breathe (or Belly): Check for hunger and satiety before you eat. Check to make sure you aren't hungry for something else, like non-food stimulation. Guiding rule: Eat when you're hungry; don't eat when you're not hungry.
Assess your food: Notice your food, what it smells and looks like, to be sure it's what you really need.
Slow down: This can help you enjoy your food more and notice when you're full.
Investigate your hunger and satiety throughout the meal: Since you'll be distracted during meals, bring your attention back to eating and tasting, being alert to your hunger or satiety throughout the meal.
Chew your food thoroughly: This helps you slow down and allows better digestion of the food's nutrients. Chewing thoroughly also helps you to realize when you have eaten enough.
Savour your food: Honour your taste buds and body. Don't grab the nearest food at hand. "If you can't savour it, why eat it?" she writes on her blog.
A former Diet Coke addict, she gave it up as she became more mindful. Mindfulness, she guarantees, will ruin junk food for you, as you notice it doesn't taste good. Mindfulness and intuitive eating, she believes, hold promise for workplaces and individuals trying to be healthier and more productive.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter