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Working on healthy choices

healthy eating at work

Employees consume about a third of their daily energy intake at work and this can have a significant influence on overall diet and long-term health. Natasha Maynard of research and training charity IGD explores the use of behavioural science in the form of simple ‘nudges’ to encourage healthier food choices at work.

Supporting health and wellness makes good business sense

Consumer interest in health is on the rise with 85% of British shoppers claiming they want to improve their diet in some way[1]. Most food and drink companies would agree they have an important part to play in supporting people to achieve this aspiration. Many have demonstrated their commitment to consumer health by:

  • providing more nutrition information on pack
  • reformulating recipes to make products healthier
  • promoting products more carefully
  • introducing new, healthier options.

However, as well as supporting consumers, it is important that companies also consider their own employees. A company employing 1,000 people could risk more than £126,000 a year in lost productivity, solely due to obesity[2].

Many organisations are placing greater emphasis on employee wellbeing, not least because of growing recognition that if you look after the wellbeing of your people, they will be healthier, happier, more productive and loyal[3].

Small, sometimes unnoticed, changes in how options are presented (often called ‘nudges’) can encourage healthier choices.

A unique opportunity to influence peoples’ food choices

There is growing evidence from behavioural science that the shape of an environment can have a major impact on outcomes. Changing the physical environment is usually more powerful than trying to influence employees’ conscious thinking alone, given that we make most of our day to day decisions intuitively.

Small, sometimes unnoticed, changes in how options are presented (often called ‘nudges’) can encourage healthier choices. This was the thinking behind IGD’s recent programme of experiments with the Behaviour and Health Research Unit (BHRU) at the University of Cambridge.

This partnership tested various ways of helping people make healthier choices in workplace restaurants. The research took place between 2016 and 2018 at 19 workplace restaurants spread across regions in England. Involving around 17,000 people from a mixture of office, depot and manufacturing sites, it represents one of the largest experiments of its kind ever undertaken in a real working environment outside laboratory-type conditions.

Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Director of the BHRU at the University of Cambridge, has described the project as one of the most ambitious studies to date for healthier eating in the workplace, helping to expand the evidence base and understand the practicalities involved in making changes in real world settings.

The results

The BHRU has published the results of this research in peer-reviewed scientific papers[4,5,6]. The findings proved that simple changes can make a substantial difference to food and drink decisions made at work. In general, people were happy with changes made in the offerings of their workplace restaurant to support their overall wellbeing, as long as the changes were well managed.

These changes can be delivered in a way that is also good for the contract caterer’s business, creating a win all round. For instance, when reflecting on some of the changes made, one of the caterers commented that reducing the size of the breakfast granola pots resulted in more people buying them. The original size and price were putting people off.

The greatest impact, measured by reduction in calories sold, was achieved by adapting the range of food and drink available and reducing portion sizes (Table 1). Labelling calories was less effective in terms of creating sustained behaviour change, but very popular with consumers at the restaurants involved. Therefore, IGD recommends this option as a way of helping people make informed choices.

How to inspire change in the workplace

Throughout the experiment, volunteer sites shared huge amounts of their data with the BHRU to allow evaluation of the results. An enormous amount was learned about the practicalities involved in introducing change to a catering environment and as a result IGD has developed some advice for running a healthy eating programme in workplace restaurants.

Ideally, healthy eating should exist as part of a broader health and wellbeing programme, addressing both the physical and mental needs of employees. Addressing healthier eating at your workplace as part of a longer-term commitment will have the greatest impact.

Step 1 – Get the right people on board

Getting senior-level commitment will empower your people to suggest and make changes.

If you do not have this already, ask one of the senior leaders in your business to sponsor and champion healthy eating in the workplace.

Step 2 – Assess your current offering and set some targets

Make these realistic at the start, as more ambitious targets can be set over time.

Step 3 – Make a series of changes

Take a series of steps in sequence rather than making lots of changes at once. This way, you can see what does and does not work in real time, and you can backtrack on some of the changes if necessary.

If you have more than one restaurant in your organisation, you do not need to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ rule. You can apply the same underlying principles but be guided by differences in customer demand at each site.

Step 4 - Measure impact

Consider how to measure the impact of your programme, for example through sales of healthier meals and colleague satisfaction. It will take a while for dietary changes to have an impact on overall health so give it enough time to see results.

Morale is a vital factor in any wellbeing programme, so ask your colleagues for their feedback and be prepared to adapt your approach in turn, without sacrificing your end goal.

Too much information can be difficult to absorb in a restaurant setting, so displaying the energy information simply and clearly is the priority


This study on healthy eating in the workplace proves how simple changes can encourage healthier food choices at work. Many of the companies involved in the study are now spreading best practice throughout their business, including internationally in some cases. IGD’s aim is to mobilise more employers to rethink their catering offer.

Natasha Maynard, Nutrition and Scientific Affairs Manager, IGD

IGD’s healthy eating initiatives bring people and organisations from the breadth of the food industry together to promote healthy balanced diets. Our guide shares the learnings from the experiments through simple and practical tips that any employer providing food and drink at work can implement. Download a free copy at:


Telephone 01923 857141

Twitter @igd_health



[1] IGD ShopperVista 1,700+ All shoppers, April 2018

[2] National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), 2012

[3] British Heart Foundation, Health at work – Economic evidence for workplace health, 2016

[4] Pechey R, Cartwright E, Pilling M, Hollands GJ, Jebb SA, Vasiljevic M, Marteau TM. (2019) Impact of increasing the proportion of healthier foods available on energy purchased in worksite cafeterias: A stepped wedge randomized controlled pilot trial. Appetite.

[5] Hollands GJ, Cartwright E, Pilling M, Pechey R, Vasiljevic M, Jebb SA. (2018). Impact of reducing portion sizes in worksite cafeterias: a stepped wedge randomised controlled pilot trial. Int J Behav Nutr Phy.

[6] Vasiljevic M, Cartwright E, Pilling M, Lee MM, Bignardi G, Pechey R, Hollands GJ, Jebb SA, Marteau TM. (2018) Impact of calorie labelling in worksite cafeterias: a stepped wedge randomised controlled pilot trial. Int J Behav Nutr Phy.

[7] IGD Eating well and eating out report, 2018.

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