By Dale Rayman, Zipongo | July 2016
The facts are troubling: More than 2 in 3 Americans are overweight or obese. Unless something changes, 52% of Americans will have diabetes or prediabetes by 2020, according to the UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform and Modernization.
Employers, who bear the brunt of the costs when employees are hospitalized or miss work due to chronic illness, want to keep that from happening. That's why most large employers in the United States have turned to workplace wellness programs to help employees get and stay healthy. Unfortunately, the majority of these programs have not had much success in slowing the obesity trend. Nor have most programs lived up to their promise of delivering a financial ROI. Research indicates that many programs barely break even.
A major driver behind these failures is that these programs don't focus enough on the most important ingredient in wellness — food. Many wellness programs invest much more in fitness, stress reduction and tobacco cessation than in improving nutrition. Yet, evidence shows that poor nutrition has a significantly greater impact on health status. In fact, a study in the Journal of the American Medical AssociationÂ (JAMA) reports that dietary risks have almost three times the impact on both mortality and disability as low or no physical activity.
Perhaps the reason wellness programs give food short shrift is the fact that getting people to change their eating behaviors is hard. Traditional approaches to improving nutrition — making individuals order special foods, go on diets or track what they eat — haven't worked. Telling people to eat more vegetables and fruits and less sugar and fat isn't adequate. Outlining the consequences of obesity hasn't done the trick either.
How then are wellness programs expected to move the needle on nutrition? The key lies in helping employees navigate the complex factors surrounding their food choices.
Eating nutritiously in our current ecosystem is challenging. First of all, people are surrounded by fast-food chains, junk-food manufacturers, price promotions and clever marketing campaigns. The food industry bombards us with advertising of high-sugar, high-calorie foods and beverages (more is spent on promoting these than healthy foods). Today's portion sizes are also much larger than in the past, points out another JAMA article. Choosing to eat healthy is further complicated by the fact that it isn't easy to select the right balance of fiber, carbs, fats, sugar, vitamins and sodium. A busy lifestyle makes such calculations especially difficult.
People also must contend with social factors. They want to go out to restaurants with friends and family. They want to eat in company cafeterias with co-workers. When they're home, they want the option of cooking or ordering in. They don't want nutrition plans that restrict those choices.
Employees need a solution that makes it easy to eat healthy. They need something that takes into account the complex social factors that surround their eating decisions. They need experts doing the hard work behind the scenes — linking to grocery-store chains, to tens of thousands of restaurants across the country and to food-service vendors in company cafeterias — to make sense of the nutritional content of meals. They need to know the healthier choices that surround them, whether they are at home, at work or on the go. And they need all of this information personalized to match their dietary needs (whether vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian or paleo), their health status (diabetic, hypertensive, etc.) and their allergies.
At long last, a few vendors that can tie this together have come forward, marrying the latest in digital technology with evidence-based personalized solutions to point employees to healthy choices wherever they choose to go. Companies are bringing to Android and iOS devices simple solutions that navigate the complex maze of food choices to make eating well simple for each person. Armed with such solutions, individuals are no longer required to become experts to navigate the nutritional landmines that surround them. Empowered in this way, they have the tools they need to put the brakes on the obesity trend.
Equipping employees with nutritional tools has become even more essential in 2016. Effective Jan. 1, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA) began requiring employers to cover (for free) nutrition-related preventive services for employees who are obese or overweight and have cardiovascular risk factors. In other words, employers must make free nutritional counseling available for roughly half their adult population.
Successful employers will be those that adopt innovative digital solutions to address these new regulatory requirements. Instead of viewing the regulation as a compliance or cost burden, they will approach it as an opportunity to invest in their human capital through proven nutrition improvement. In the end, wise employers can more than offset the cost of such interventions with savings in health-care dollars and improved productivity.
About the Author
Dale Rayman is vice president of analytics and chief actuary of Zipongo, a San Francisco digital nutrition company.
Read the July edition of Benefits & Work-Life Focus.
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