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the 2010 dietary guidelines are out. what do they mean for employee wellness?

February 9, 2011

in wellness

the u.s. department of agriculture (USDA) released new dietary guidelines for americans a few weeks ago. (we’ll skip the obvious snarky comments about their impaired ability to guide us, given their bedfellow relationship with the meat and dairy boards.) they created this document for policy makers’ and public health advocates’ use, but there’s a lot here for companies invested in creating a healthier workforce.

early chapters cover key recommendations for the foods americans need to increase and reduce and the way to balance caloric intake through physical activity. later, in chapter six, they outline principles for “helping americans make healthy choices.” these principles are:

  • ensure that all americans have access to nutritious foods and opportunities for physical activity.
  • facilitate individual behavioral change through environmental strategies.
  • set the stage for lifelong healthy eating, physical activity and weight management behaviors.

USDA dietary guidelines

in chapter six, they also outline their social-ecological model, which, at its heart, recognizes that to help people make healthier choices, we need to make it possible for them to do so.

“Although individual behavior change is critical, a truly effective and sustainable improvement in the Nation’s health will require a multi-sector approach that applies the SocialEcological Model to improve the food and physical activity environment. This type of approach emphasizes the development of coordinated partnerships, programs, and policies to support healthy eating and active living. Interventions should extend well beyond providing traditional education to individuals and families about healthy choices, and should help build skills, reshape the environment, and re-establish social norms to facilitate individuals’ healthy choices.”

i bolded the statement above because i think it’s key. the way i see it, the first-generation wellness effort is about delivering information and motivating employees to adopt certain behaviors. the second-generation wellness effort will need to deliver on the USDA’s three principles, disrupting the workplace while continuing to invest in the individual’s ability to help themselves.

companies can start by ensuring that their cafeterias and vending machines offer more (only?!) healthy options. replace the white bread with whole wheat bread. fill the plate with fruit and vegetables, not chips. work with a health-focused vending machine company. they can further direct employees’ choices with subsidies and strategic cafeteria design. and why not help build general knowledge and know-how with cooking courses, on-site gardens and other hands-on nutrition education?

providing opportunities for regular activity is the harder nut to crack. our offices aren’t designed for movement, and our productivity- and face-time minded cultures can’t equate more physical activity with greater output. inroads are being made with discounted and on-site fitness centers, walking paths, standing or walking desks. lots of wellness efforts include physical challenges that span two to to four weeks. it seems to me that we need more disruption in office design and work flow to increase regular movement at work and during the day, in general. i wish the USDA provided more thoughts here.

when you consider the amount of hours we spend working, you realize that companies have a great deal of control over their employees’ health—for better or worse. for the company willing to consider the USDA’s key recommendations and take a hard stand on their role in improving employee health, the opportunities are plenty.


[image: USDA. apologies for the poor image quality. it’s poor to begin with.]

. In order for Americans to make healthy
choices, however, they need to have opportunities to
purchase and consume healthy foods and engage
in physical activity

Leave a Comment

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Merberg February 12, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Nice post, Fran. I think you’ve pulled out from the Dietary guidelines some key information about the social-ecological model. Despite my anti-authoritarian knee-jerk, I have to say that the USDA did a commendable job on the guidelines. They’ve acknowledged diverse eating styles and needs, brought attention to the social-ecological issues, and even included “enjoying your food” as a key message — something that’s long been absent from US eating guidelines. As Michael Pollan points out in his books, viewing food as a nutrient delivery system causes more problems than it solves.

By the way, I’m also glad that USDA set the record straight about water consumption and hydration. It boggles my mind when employee wellness programs focus on hydration — a total nonissue.

I don’t necessarily characterize 1st generation and 2nd generation wellness efforts the same way you do. If you had to choose, as a starting point, between environment and behavioral/educational approaches, environment should come first. But I’ll leave that for another time. You’ve provided excellent information and perspective here — and, really, an important call to action — and I appreciate it.


fran February 14, 2011 at 9:13 am

hi bob.

when i use first- and second-generation efforts, i’m referring to where most companies begin and how their thinking evolves. most wellness efforts don’t start out integrating their efforts, examining their physical environment or considering how their culture interferes with better health. they start with a few isolated programs, maybe some value-added design and so on. it’s only over time that they get more sophisticated in their approach. that seem fair?



Carol Harnett February 16, 2011 at 11:07 am

Hi Fran,

Here is my overdue commentary on your excellent post on the new USDA guidelines.

I want to make a side comment first. As an outstanding communications expert, I don’t know how you didn’t get through this document without shivering. To borrow a word that Matt Ridley used the other day, the Feds need to adopt a new style and disenthrall themselves from the past – both in how they communicate and how they’re influenced by various constituencies.

But I digress.

I have been placing a lot of my own research and focus on rituals versus habits and how social customs, the various communities in our lives, and our larger and varying environments impact who we are, what drives us and why change in isolation is hard.

So, yes, I am drawn to the message and importance of the environment in general. And am pleased to see it acknowledged along with the impact of other social influencers like multi-culturalism.

Like you, in the work environment, I have long been a proponent of creating an environment that doesn’t make it harder for people to do the right thing. We all have war stories about how employers (including an insurance company client) rolled out the new wellness programs with Krispy Kreme doughnuts as the enticement to get people to attend.

There are a lot of things employers can do about food. The first place I always suggest starting is with choice…simply have healthy options readily available alongside less desirable alternatives. Make certain that meetings and in-house conferences with food have healthy foods and beverages, etc.

As for physical activity, I can still clearly recall how shocked I was when I changed employment environments from health-related facilities to traditional corporate America. I couldn’t believe how much people sat. There were two things I suggested immediately to my boss (who was the president of the division so his influence helped) that he supported 100 percent.

We moved all meetings to standing meetings. To remove objections from people who said it was hard to take notes, we brought in the high round tables that are usually seen in bars. There was both a place to write and a place to rest your foot to reduce the back pressure from standing that some people experience.

The other thing I did personally was that any meeting that I had with one individual – particularly one-on-ones – I did as a “walking meeting.” We either got outside or were seen wandering hallways. In addition to getting us moving, it also made it easier to have difficult conversations. A trick I learned from a former colleague who was a psychologist was to discuss challenging topics in the car or when walking. When you don’t have to make eye-to-eye contact, it’s easier for people to talk about difficult things.

So, those are my off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts.

Thanks again for a great post.

With respect,


fran February 16, 2011 at 2:51 pm

hi carol.

you share some great, practical examples.

as to how i muddled through the document? honestly, what got me more was that so many writers commented on how the full guidelines weren’t written for your average person. they’re not written for them! talking about that is a whole ‘nother thing.



Bob Merberg February 16, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Hmmm. What are folks finding so objectionable about the communication of the guidelines? I felt like the full document — written for wonks like me — was well presented. Concise, lively, and engaging.

The following are the USDA’s key messages for consumers. Again, I’m no schill for the US gummint, but I think this is a fairly brilliant distillation of their messages:

Take action on the Dietary Guidelines by making changes in these three areas.

Choose steps that work for you and start today.

1. Balancing Calories
— Enjoy your food, but eat less.
— Avoid oversized portions.

2. Foods to Increase
— Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
— Switch to fat­free or low-fat (1%) milk.

3. Foods to Reduce
— Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals-and choose the foods with lower numbers.
— Drink water instead of sugary drinks.


fran February 16, 2011 at 5:22 pm

the consumer guidelines are great. i agree. they’re easy to understand without additional nutritional knowledge. (of course, most of know a lot of this and still don’t do it.) marion nestle commented that they’d disappeared, though i found them with the guidelines on the .gov site. i don’t think even disseminating this information will do the trick, however. i’m keen to see how they get picked up and used in public health, schools and the office.



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