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Fixing low turnout for your employee wellness program

One of the objections to employee wellness programs that I frequently hear is previously they experienced low turnout.

As a wellness program provider, I have heard this several times from businesses of different sizes and across different industries. Getting solid participation in employee wellness programs can be a challenge. And creating incentive to participate without crossing over into coercion can be equally challenging. 

So what is an employer to do to increase low turnout?

The first step is to really be in touch with your workforce.

  1. Survey your workforce to determine which wellness topics and program types appeal to them the most.
  2. Pay attention to workloads and deadlines. You can have the greatest program lined up, but if employees don’t feel they can attend because of deadlines or an overwhelming workload, they won’t make it. You need to be strategic about the timing of your programs and/or find ways to make it easier for staff to attend. 
  3. Don’t forget about the quiet ones. There tends to be a group of frequent flyers in every office – the outgoing, more gregarious employees who live to participate in group activities. How can you reach out to the quieter, less outgoing staff members to encourage them to join in? This could mean personal invitations, different types of events where the social pressure isn’t so high, or asking them specifically what they are looking for. 
  4. Aim for more variety in your offerings. There are many reasons why folks opt out of participating in wellness programs. For example, a healthy eating seminar could be triggering for a staff member who is in recovery from an eating disorder. A group fitness classes may be intimidating to staffers with diverse bodies or abilities. Offering variety ensures you’re not alienating subpopulations of staffers from an entire series. 

Offer incentives to participate

But be sure those incentives don’t turn into penalties for not participating.

  1. One type of incentive is to simply make it easy for staff to attend. This could be blocking off time on the calendar for everyone to avoid meeting conflicts, frequent reminders of the program, making a live and a virtual option available, to name a few.
  2. You could offer small prizes for participation, like entry into a raffle or small gifts like a yoga mat. Keeping it small is ket not just for your budget but for also ensuring participation is still optional.
  3. Avoid the participation challenge approach where the more events attended increases an employee’s odds of winning. This approach can expose disparities in the workplace, engendering resentment among staff (ex. Why is his workload so light?). It can also alienate certain staff members if not enough variety is offered.
  4. Do not make participation mandatory. Sure this is a great way to get your attendance numbers up, but folks may not get much out of the program and you also run the risk of unwittingly doing harm to staff members who would otherwise have not participated for personal reasons (see point 4 above). 

Keep in mind there are a number of reasons for historically low turnout and many have nothing to do with the program itself. Rather than giving up on offering something of value to employees, troubleshoot the situation and seek out creative solutions.

people raising their hands

How to make your employee wellness program more inclusive

How can you make your employee wellness program more inclusive?

Over the years, I’ve heard some upsetting stories about workplace wellness programs – from cultural foods being dismissed as unhealthy to stigmatizing weight loss challenges, from culturally insensitive remarks to employees being pushed, pulled, and prodded to explain why they don’t want to participate.

While there are plenty of good intentions out there, we can’t overlook the fact that the wellness industry has an exclusivity problem. And, if we’re being honest, the American workplace does, too. If employees feel uncomfortable, singled out, or stressed out by a company wellness program, then that program is harming their wellness rather than helping it.

Here are some tips to help make your employee wellness program more inclusive:

  • Consider your workforce’s cultural and ethnic composition. Many nutrition programs take a white-centric approach and mistakenly assume all cultural foods are unhealthy. Not only is this untrue, it is also stigmatizing to have a nutrition professional dismiss an entire culture’s foods. Employees should not feel self-conscious bringing their cultural foods into work for lunch.
  • Consider your workforce’s overall socioeconomic status. If a company’s wages are relatively low, advising its employees to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store (ie. only buy fresh produce and meats) is not particularly helpful since it may be economically unfeasible. Your wellness program must propose accessible solutions to your employees to be helpful.
  • Avoid weight loss challenges. These challenges are incredibly stigmatizing to employees in larger bodies, making the workplace an uncomfortable and sometimes hostile place. These may also be triggering to employees with a history of eating disorders and disordered eating. Finally, the data shows these challenges are completely ineffective as employees don’t make lasting healthful changes. So why risk harming the well-being of some staffers?
  • Incentivizing participation is great, but keep in mind that employees may have their own personal reasons for not participating that they are not obligated to disclose to you. For example, an employee in eating disorder recovery may choose not to participate in a healthy cooking class that discusses calorie counting. An employee with a larger body may feel too self-conscious to participate in a fitness class. Participating in certain activities may be considered inappropriate in some employees’ culture. The workplace needs to be a safe space where employees feel free to choose whether to participate in activities based on the reasons important to them.

Your HR department should be heavily involved in planning your wellness programs to help ensure company demographics are considered. Be sure to share a company profile with your prospective wellness program providers including that workforce composition information and ask them what they propose in light of that information. You could also request to see examples of their previous programming for other companies to get an idea of whether they are appropriate for your workforce.

group of people wearing blue and red shirts
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dinnerware set on brown wooden table

Eating after 7 PM

Does eating after 7 pm cause weight gain, really?

Many of us have heard this and believe that food eaten after a certain time is automatically stored as fat. 

The good news is that this is not true. But there are some reasons to be cautious about eating too late at night. 

First thing’s first, there is no time after which your body automatically stores the food you eat as fat. Furthermore, your digestion doesn’t just stop when you go to sleep. Sleep is actually quite an active time for our bodies and they need fuel to carry important processes. Our bodies process food eaten later at night the same way as the food you eat earlier in the day. 

Where did the myth of eating after 7 pm come from?

This myth partly arose from the fact that, in American society, we tend to eat our most calorie-dense meal at night. On top of that, many of us snack after that dinner. So that evening eating could place us into a calorie surplus, leading to weight gain. Therefore, if we stop eating after 7 pm, we most likely inadvertently reduce our calorie intake, possibly creating a calorie deficit which could lead to weight loss. As you can see, it has nothing to do with timing and everything to do with the amount of food eaten.  

So should I eat at night or not?

Eating larger meals close to bedtime could cause heartburn or GI upset as we lie down before that food has been digested and moved out of our stomach. That discomfort can disrupt our sleep which, when experienced chronically, can create other issues.

So what should you do if you are hungry close to bedtime? My advice? Eat. If you choose to ignore that hunger, you could lose sleep because of it. You could also wake up ravenous and eat in ways you normally wouldn’t and that don’t resonate with your goals. If you do need to eat close to bedtime, keep it on the lighter side of things (avoid acidic foods) and eat just enough to be satisfied. This should help prevent any GI upset. 

person in red blazer sitting at the table

How to find time to eat at work

As more of us are returning to the workplace, I’m hearing very frequently from folks that they are finding it difficult to find time to eat at work. As a result, many find themselves ravenous when they return home, leading them to overeat or make food choices they would not have otherwise.

What Happens When We Undereat During Our Workday

A number of issues arise when we fail to eat during our workday. For one, our energy levels drop and it becomes hard to focus. Our performance may suffer, whether we realize it or not. That extreme hunger can also impact our mood and, by extension, our relationships with our coworkers and staff. Failing to provide our bodies with ample nutrition during the day also makes us less resilient to stress. When we do get to eat and overdo it, that often results in feelings of guilt, shame, and regret, further contributing to our stress levels and sometimes leading to unhealthy behaviors to compensate. Finally, eating too much too late can disrupt our sleep, which can affect our performance, stress levels, and immune system function.

How to Make It Easier to Find Time to Eat at Work

Ideally, we make time for at least a lunch break each day, but sometimes that’s not possible. If you find yourself struggling to pull yourself away from your work, it’s important to make it as easy as possible to eat.

What to Eat at Work

When eating at work, we want to make sure that we have enough energy and are feeling satisfied throughout the day. The key to achieving this is balanced snacking. Combining protein, complex carbohydrates, and fat will provide the calories and nutrition we need.

  • Protein – provides fullness and satiety for longer periods
  • Complex Carbohydrates – provides steady, lasting energy levels
  • Fat – contributes to satisfaction as well as energy

Here are some nutritious snacks that will hit the mark on this:

  • Starkist tuna packet with whole grain crackers
  • Crunchy chick pea or edamame snacks
  • Jerky
  • Protein bars
  • DIY trail mix: nuts, dried fruit, dark chocolate chips
  • Individual packs of almonds
  • Cheese stick with whole grain crackers
  • Apple with nut butter (individual packets of nut butter like Justin’s are super handy!)

You might have noticed that many of the examples above are shelf stable and/or transportable. That is entirely by design. Keeping snacks like these in your desk drawer or in your car makes it very easy for you to eat and make nutritious choices.

So that’s one step for making it easier for yourself to eat during the workday: keep simple snacks handy.

But what if you tend to look up at 4 pm and realize you haven’t eaten since 8 am?

A good solution for this issue is to set an alarm or calendar event for every 2 hours or so. When that alarm goes off, take a minute or two to check in with yourself: when was the last time you ate? Do you feel any signs of hunger right now? How is your energy? Your focus? If you’re feeling hungry, grab one of those easy snacks.

If you are able to make these small changes and increase the amount of food you eat during the work day, you will likely find you energy levels improve, your mood improves, and you feel more in control around food at the end of the day.

person in red blazer sitting at the table
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pasta with sauce in the plate

How often should you have carbs?

I was recently speaking with someone who reminded me of a diet myth about how often we should have carbs: you can only have carbs at one meal per day. I think many of us subconsciously follow this rule. In fact, I actually recently caught myself thinking, “I had a bagel for breakfast so we shouldn’t have pasta for dinner.” I caught myself – WHY NOT? Who said we can only have carbs one meal per day? Is there any legitimacy to this?

This diet rule arose out of the low-carb and keto diet craze. And it stems from this belief that carbs are bad for you and cause weight gain. Surprise, surprise, like most diet rules, there is no science to back this one up.

You can have carbs for every meal of the day if you want.

  1. Carbs don’t cause weight gain. There is no single food that causes weight gain. Weight gain is a product of calorie excess and other complicating factors such as hormonal status.
  2. Carbs are not bad for you. Our bodies need carbohydrates and are designed to run on them. It’s our body’s preferred fuel source. In fact, our brain is extremely dependent on carbs for its fuel. Our bodies are not designed to burn fat as our primary fuel source – ketosis is a survival mechanism.
  3. Carbs are nutritious. Different carbohydrates contain important nutrients and, if we’re restricting our carb intake dramatically, we could be missing out on that nutrition. Take fiber as a prime example.
  4. Eating for enjoyment is important. We, as humans, eat for many reasons. Enjoyment being among them and just as legitimate as every other reason to eat. If you’re not enjoying what you eat, you’re not going to be satisfied by it. And when that happens, you’re probably going to continue to eat more as you seek out that satisfaction. This can lead us to feel frustrated and out of control around food.

For more information about low carb diets, check out this blog post.

woman sitting in front of macbook

Employee Stress: How You Can Help During the Holidays

Discussions about employee stress often focus on what the individual can do to help themself, but have you thought about how you can help your employees manage their holiday stress?

Chronically high stress is a key ingredient in the recipe for burnout. As such, it’s important for managers to recognize the signs and the areas where there is the possibility for them to contribute to or subtract from that stress. 

Here are some simple, yet powerful ways you can start doing that.

Assisting with Employee Stress Management

  • Check in with employees regularly. You should have a good idea of their workload and their stress levels. Check in with them to see how they’re doing and look for nonverbal cues.
  • Redistribute tasks as necessary. Following from tip # 1, if workloads are too heavy for some, redistribute as is appropriate and doable. Also, help employees prioritize. Some things may need to be back-burned for the time-being and you need to communicate that it is OK when that happens.
  • Infuse some fun into the season. I don’t mean the obligatory office “fun” folks roll their eyes at. Seek out the activities and events employees actually enjoy and host those, whether it’s a Secret Snowflake gift exchange, a surprise lunch on the company dime, or in-office chair massage. 
  • Foster an environment that prioritizes mental health. Encourage employees to take their lunch break. Don’t “ding” employees for using PTO. Ask them about how they’re doing and show genuine interest in their responses. Remind them of the resources they have available to support them, such as EAPs. And model work-life balance to them through your own actions and choices.
  • Give staff some liberty in how they work. Gone are the days when seats had to be kept warm until 5 pm. Employees want flexibility and trust and they aren’t tolerating micromanaging. It’s important for management to be open to different ways of achieving the same goals and tasks. Being able to work from home and get the work done when it works best for them can go a really long way towards keeping stress at bay.

As I’ve said before, employee burnout doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it’s critical for management to step in to avoid it as well.

person in brown long sleeve shirt holding black handled scissors

Managing Holiday Stress

Managing daily stress presents its own challenges, but coupling that with holiday stress can be overwhelming. Stress management is critical for our health as uncontrolled stress has been linked to health conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, depression and anxiety, and even diabetes. All of this is thanks to a little hormone called cortisol. While an integral part of our stress response, cortisol also plays important roles in a number of other body processes. Thus, when chronic stress raises our cortisol levels for long periods, other processes suffer as well.

How to Manage Holiday Stress

When strategizing about how to manage your stress, remember that there are 2 parts to it:

  1. Limiting how much stress you experience
  2. Mitigating the effects of the stress you can’t eliminate

So, let’s talk about how to manage your holiday stress through these lenses.

Limiting How Much Stress You Experience

  • Cut out the non-essentials. This time of year, we tend to heap a bunch of extras onto our to-do lists. And a lot of those things we don’t have to do and we don’t want to do. Take a good look at your calendar and to-do list and ask yourself why those items are on there. If they aren’t essential, cut yourself some slack and let them go.
  • Enforce your boundaries. People pleasing is a major cause of stress and having strong boundaries is the antidote. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to the things you don’t have to take on that will cause you more stress.
  • Plan ahead. Nothing worsens a stressful situation like feeling completely out of control of it. Look at the items you have control over and plan for them. Make lists, put it is a schedule, and avoid procrastinating so you’re not scrambling at the last minute.

Mitigating the Effects of Stress

  • Get sufficient sleep. We need sleep in order to recover and for our hormone levels to balance out. Do what you can to ensure you get your 7-9 hours each night. This could include: making sure your bedroom is a cool, dark, and restful space; having a bedtime routine; and stopping screen time 1-2 hours before bed.
  • Make time for you. Self-care is the way we recharge. Making even just a little time to do something that you enjoy every day can go a long way for mitigating stress. Going for a walk, making a craft, journaling are all types of self-care. Really, the only requirements are that, 1. you enjoy it, and 2. it’s not another to-do list item.
  • Don’t forget to enjoy the season. At the end of the day, the whole point in this holiday season craziness is that we have fun and enjoy time with those we love. So make sure to squeeze that in.
baguette bakery blur bread

Why Low-Carb Diets Don’t Work

  • Low carb diets don’t work for effective, lasting weight loss
  • They come with several side effects

The 80s-90s had the low-fat craze and the 2000s have the low-carb craze. Proponents of low-carb and ketogenic diets proclaim their remarkable ability to help you lose weight fast, but, when really looked at, those claims simply don’t hold water.

About Low-Carb Diets

There have been a number of iterations on low-carb diets over the years – from the Atkins Diet to South Beach to the latest craze, ketogenic diets. The basic premise of them is that consuming carbohydrates makes you gain weight and so, if you cut down on carbs, you’ll lose weight. These diets range in their approach from only making certain “types” of carbs off-limits to limiting your overall carb intake in order to achieve ketosis, a state in which your body relies on fat for energy rather than glucose.

The Problems with Low-Carb Diets

How Low-Carb Weight Loss Works

Nearly everyone who has done a low-carb diet says: 1. they plateaued at a certain point and couldn’t get the scale to budge from there, and 2. once they started eating carbs again they gained all their weight back and then some.

I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound like an effective diet to me.

In fact, numerous scientific studies have shown that low-carb and ketogenic diets are no more effective at creating weight loss than any other diet out there. In other words, just like any other diet on the market, it works for a short time but then, inevitably, you will regain the weight you lost.

So why is this?

One of the things that people love about low-carb diets is that they see a big drop in their weight very quickly. To understand why that is, we need a little science lesson.

Glucose is our body’s preferred energy source. When we eat, our body breaks down our food into smaller chemical units, including glucose. Of that glucose, what we immediately need gets used for energy and what we don’t need immediately, gets stored in our body for later in the form of glycogen. Here’s the clincher: for every gram of glycogen stored in our body, 3-4 grams of water is stored with it.

And so, when we restrict or eliminate carbs, our bodies burn through our glycogen stores, releasing that water which then passes out of our body. What does this mean? That exciting weight loss that happens when you start a low-carb diet is just water weight. Hence weight loss quickly slows down on low-carb diets and you will regain weight as soon as you start eating carbs again. This also contributes to that plateau effect I mentioned earlier.

What about the rest of the weight loss?

After that initial drop in water weight, the rest of the weight loss from low carb diets comes from the same source as any other diet: calorie deficit. That’s right, carbs don’t make you gain weight.

By removing or restricting an entire macronutrient from your diet, you are consuming fewer calories without even thinking about it.

And it follows that, once you start to each carbs again, you will come out of that calorie deficit and regain the weight you lost. This also explains the plateauing that many low-carbers experience: our bodies adapt to calorie restriction by slowing down our metabolism. Calorie restriction to our bodies is famine and starvation, so they compensate to try to keep up alive by becoming more efficient with less fuel – as happens with any other low-calorie diet.

Sustainability

Think back to a time you wanted something and someone told you that you couldn’t have it. How did you react?

You wanted it even more, right?

That is how our bodies respond to restriction and deprivation as well. Remember that your body is designed to keep you alive. When you start restricting its energy source through calorie and carb restriction, it panics that it doesn’t have what it needs to keep you alive. And so it mobilizes every tactic it has to compel you to find and consume food. You think about food. You crave certain foods. Smelling food makes you salivate. Your stomach grumbles and aches. You find it harder and harder to resist.

And so we can only hold out on restrictive diets for so long. And then when we go back to our old eating habits. It’s just not effective strategy in the long-term.

Side Effects of Low Carb Diets

Many people don’t realize there are some unpleasant side effects that come with low-carb diets.

You may have heard of “keto fog” referring to a feeling of absentmindedness or difficulty focusing while on a low-carb diet. This occurs because glucose is your brain’s preferred fuel source and it does not burn fat for fuel efficiently. If you deprive your brain of its most efficient fuel, it’s not going to work as well.

Many low-carb dieters also report fatigue and crankiness. The former is also related to the lack of an efficient fuel source for your body. And the latter, well…have you ever had a carbohydrate? They’re delicious. I’d be cranky without them, too.

There are also concerns about the long-term health effects of low-carb and ketogenic diets.

The state of ketosis is, in fact, a survival mechanism to keep our vital processes going during periods of famine. The human body is not designed to exist in ketosis for any extended period of time. Thus, many health professionals are concerned about the long-term effects this may have on our health. This is a focus on ongoing study.

Finally, studies have shown a link between ketogenic diets and cardiovascular disease. Low carb diets’ focus on fat consumption runs contrary to decades of medical science demonstrating the adverse effects of high saturated fat consumption on our heart health. We simply don’t need all that much in our diet and should not consume high amounts of it.

What You Need to Know about Low Carb Diets

Long story short, low-carb diets are not effective means of lasting weight loss and come with a number of risks that don’t outweigh the benefits. They’re just another fad.

top view of a family praying before christmas dinner

Managing Diet Comments from Family

Family holiday dinners are coming up and for many of us that could mean difficult, hurtful, or triggering comments about diet and weight with relatives.

Just like everyone has an opinion about the weather, it seems like everyone has an opinion on diet and weight loss. Unfortunately, many people feel compelled to share those opinions without consent or thinking about how it could land for the person on the receiving end. I think we probably all have that one relative who holds nothing back.

Some things to keep in mind: what is on your plate is your business only and it doesn’t matter what or how much anyone else at the table is eating. Your needs are unique to you and you are the only one who can tune into them. So, as much as you’re able, allow any unwanted comments to slide away and try to focus on your hunger and satiety, your cravings, and your satisfaction and enjoyment.

But, how do we curtail these unwanted conversations? Whether it be a relative going on and on about their latest diet or a relative claiming to be concerned about your health and relating it to your weight, here are some ways you can respond and enforce your boundaries.

To the relative detailing everything about their latest diet:

  • I’m really glad that you’ve found something that works for you but would you mind if we changed the subject?
  • I’m finding this topic kind of triggering, can we talk about something else?
  • This is clearly something you’re very passionate about, but this might not be the best time to discuss it. 

To the relative commenting on your holiday dinner plate:

  • Excuse me, why is my plate so interesting to you? (OK that one is confrontational)
  • You have the food that works best for you on your plate and this is what works best for me. 
  • I know you think you’re being helpful, but you’re actually doing the opposite. I would appreciate it if you would direct your attention back to your own plate.
  • I’m so happy we could get together today, but I didn’t get together to discuss my eating habits. 
  • What I choose to eat today is my business. 

To the relative making comments about diet and weight loss:

  • I know you think you’re being helpful, but I’m finding your comments hurtful. 
  • I understand that you want to help, but I am not looking for your advice on this. 
  • I prefer to keep conversations about my health between me and my physician so I’d like to change the subject. 
  • I’m not looking for weight loss tips right now. 
  • This conversation is making me very uncomfortable. I’d like to talk about something else. 

As long as there are family gatherings, there will probably always be comments about diet. However, by setting good boundaries for yourself and protecting those boundaries, you can minimize those comments and their impact on you.

bowl with yummy colorful gummies on table

Losing Control around Halloween Candy

There is currently a video going around on social media showing a woman creating a cute Halloween candy display in a large glass bowl. But that’s not the part that has been raising eyebrows. At the end of the video, she nonchalantly sprays hair spray all over the candy and the caption reads “so you don’t eat all the candy.”

Responses have been mixed, with some commenting that it’s funny or even a good idea. Others have been commenting that there is something wrong if you are spraying toxic inedible chemicals on food to avoid eating it. Here is my take.

When I first saw this video, it immediately harkened back to a practice that some individuals with eating disorders resort to: they in some way “ruin” their food so they can’t continue to eat it. Indeed, when I was in the peak of my disordered eating habits in college, I would routinely dump a shaker of pepper onto what was left on my dinner plate so I wouldn’t eat it while waiting for my friends to finish up. This is a very problematic and disordered practice and the woman in this video is promoting it like it’s the next greatest idea. So that is issue #1.

This video also prompts the question: why are you feeling that out of control around Halloween candy? As an anti-diet nutrition coach, I can answer this one. Deprivation and restriction are the top causes of binging and overeating. In other words, the foods that you feel the least in control around are the foods you allow yourself to consume the least. You may also have thoughts about those foods along the lines of: “I can’t trust myself around that food,” “it’s my weakness,” “it’s my guilty pleasure,” or “I’m being bad when I eat that.” And if you believe these things, of course you’re going to avoid certain foods!

The urge to binge or overeat when we are around foods we seldom allow ourselves to consume is a normal human response to deprivation. It’s not always conscious, but it is both a mental and physical response. When we do engage in these behaviors, it’s referred to as “last supper eating” because we tend to consume a food as though it’s the last time we will have it. And, indeed, it can feel that way because we truly don’t know when we will allow ourselves to have it again.

So what is the antidote for this?

In order to break this cycle of restriction and overeating, we must put those “trigger foods” on the same level as every other food we eat. Take the novelty out of them. Take the guilt and shame out of them. We do this by giving ourselves unconditional permission to eat them.

This unconditional permission does a few things:

  1. It removes the novelty from them and with that novelty goes the allure.
  2. It provides the reassurance to us that we can have those foods whenever we want, so we don’t need to overindulge as though we won’t have them again.
  3. Even if you at first overindulge in these foods once you give yourself permission to eat them, it will eventually level out and they will just become “normal” foods once that initial excitement wears off.

So, if you thought spraying hair spray onto your Halloween candy to prevent yourself from eating it was an appealing strategy, it’s probably because you rarely allow yourself candy or sweets to begin with. You may want to consider making candy a more run-of-the-mill presence in your life and see how that changes your relationship with it. And, from a nutritional perspective, this coach can assure you that having some candy from time to time or even a small piece of candy every day is perfectly fine. There is room in every healthy diet for some fun foods. And, having those fun foods regularly, makes your healthy eating habits more sustainable in the long-term.

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