EATING FOR MENTAL HEALTH & RESILIENCE

A guest post from Lawrence Mitchell: Chief Customer Officer at SumoSalad and founder of RAW Energy

‘If you take away the muffins, there will be mutiny’ advised Maria G, the Occupational Health Lead of RBI, the company where I was Global Marketing Director and sponsor of the RBI Living Well programme.

Those words, though, didn’t deter me. If we needed to increase the performance of the business, we needed to help the people working in the business perform better, and, as any athlete will tell you, food forms the basis of health and performance. Upgrade your diet and you upgrade your energy.

Over the next three years, RBI gradually upgraded the nutritional support available to its 3000 employees, introducing healthy catering, digital blood tests to identify deficiencies, keynote talks and one to one nutritional and lifestyle advice for their employees. All of these initiatives combined had a positive impact on both employee health and engagement, as well as business performance.

Food & Mental Health

The foundational role that nutrition plays in physical health and wellbeing is well understood. However, there’s also now extensive research to show how a healthy diet is inversely related to the risk for both depression, cognitive decline and other mental health conditions.

Typical western diets full of refined foods, high sugar, high caffeine, junk food, white bread, processed meats, and biscuits, all put the body under ‘nutritional stress’, and are all strongly associated with increased depression and depressive symptoms.

To the contrary, a diet packed with nutrient-dense whole foods, containing plenty of good quality plant-based foods such as vegetables, seeds and whole grains will feed the mind and the body with the nutrients it needs to manage the psychological stress that modern, ever-changing workplaces, bring.

One study found that nearly two thirds of the people who do not report daily mental health problems eat fresh vegetables and salad every day, compared with less than half of those who do report daily mental health problems.

However, despite the important role of nutrition, workplace wellbeing programmes often neglect or struggle to engage their employees on the topic of nutrition and create a healthy eating culture that supports their people’s mental health and wellbeing.
If you’re struggling to engage your employees on the topic of healthy eating, here are six things you can do:

1. The power of education
It’s easy to assume that everyone is nutritionally literate, but the truth is that most people are confused. Yes, confused about what to eat for health, let alone mental health. With conflicting expert advice, powerful food marketing and temptation everywhere, it’s no surprise. As an employer you have the opportunity to inspire and educate your employees to want to eat well, lifting them from a state of confusion to a state of clarity. You can help to take the stress out of simple decisions like navigating a menu or a grocery aisle to make smart food choices that increases mental energy, and prevents inflammation and a compromised gut microbiome that are both increasingly associated with mental health issues.

Healthy food education can be fun and engaging and include live, in-person talks or digitally distributed webinars as well as free, healthy food and drink for people to taste and learn through experience. Free food & drink at an event is always a massive draw and promotes a great sense of community.

2. Create a healthy food challenge
Everyone likes a bit of competition and fitness challenges, in particular, work very well to engage teams to work together to move their bodies. Extending the concept to food can be a bit more challenging, but is certainly possible using data-enabled apps like Cronometer to award employees with points for eating fruits and vegetables and healthy snacks.

3. Make healthy food accessible in the office
As a health coach, a constant gripe I hear from people is the lack of access to good quality food whilst at work, forcing people to compromise and consume what’s available. Whilst it’s an employees’ prerogative to decide what to put into their bodies, an employer can make it much easier to lead their employees to healthier eating habits by:

replacing high sugar drinks in vending machines with better quality options such as water or kombucha;
using a delivery service to bring healthy salads and food to the office;
providing free fruit bowls or even free breakfast and lunch (like Google),
encouraging employees to share their healthy snack and meal recipes that can contribute to a company’s Healthy Recipe Blog
These steps will help employees reduce the amount of processed sugar and increase the nutrition they’re consuming which will positively impact their energy levels and performance.

4. Energise your meetings
As a senior exec in a corporate business for a long time, I was often left nibbling on the garnish as the food offerings available at lunch meetings were often nutritionally poor – high carbs, high sugar – the enemies of mental focus and attention. Fortunately that’s starting to change as enlightened businesses wake-up to the impact that nutritionally poor lunches at meetings provide. Catering meetings with healthy food is now accessible and available and much easier than ever before with companies like SumoSalad offering breakfast, snacks and lunch options which can be ordered online and delivered to wherever you are.

5. Implement a workplace nutrition policy
If you’re keen to promote a healthy eating culture, creating a policy or set of guidelines will make it easier for front-line staff to deliver a consistent experience aligned to your policy. In our attention-deficit world, this policy doesn’t need to look like a legal document (unless you don’t want anyone to read it), but consider creating a simple training diagram or video that is far more accessible to people.

6. Provide access to specialists
Providing access to specialists like health coaches and dieticians can provide one-to-one support and personal insights to help individuals kick-start a change in their diet and lifestyle that could help them to become mentally more resilient and better able to deal with psychological stress.

Summary

In summary, food forms the basis of health and is a key contributor to employee mental health and wellbeing. A diet rich in whole foods will help reduce nutritional stress and provide more mental energy to tackle psychological stress that comes from working in an ever changing work environment.

Whilst every employee is responsible for their own health and wellbeing without question, an employer has the responsibility to make it easier for their employees access great tasting, affordable, good quality nutrition and is in a powerful position to lead their people to healthier eating habits.