Examining Workplace Diet Programs: Nay or Nay?

Oh, the woe — excuse me, wellness — of workplace diets. Or, wellness programs? Corporate weight control?

Since the rise of corporate dietary programs in the 1980s — soft-pedaled as workplace health and wellness initiatives — workplace diets have gradually evolved and spread to numerous workplaces across the United States, and abroad in countries like the United Kingdom. According to one estimate, workplace diet programs have reached as many as 90% of American workers employed in large corporations.

Despite research indicating that these programs — which largely focus on weight management— have not shown to produce significant long-term outcomes in measures of health, companies large and small continue attempts to implement makeshift diet or “wellness” programs into their workplace under the guise of health promotion.

The intensity of these programs, and the incentives for achieving “success” within them, can vary. These programs range from Biggest Loser-esque competitions to health awareness awareness programs addressing various health issues, from weight management to smoking and heavy drinking.

It may be argued that the greater spread of workplace wellness programs in the last decade has occurred largely in response to the so-called obesity epidemic that has plastered print, visual, and digital media headlines, warning healthcare providers and the public alike of the purported dangers of living in a larger body.

American culture is saturated with health-coverage-slash-horror-stories about fatness, unhealthy diets (the sugary, fast-food ones—not the ones advocating restrictive eating) and contemplating food as anything but necessary for survival. Well, sometimes.

But does giving credence to the mass of fear-mongering headlines and demonizing weight gain really lead to health improvement?

Short answer: it does not. In part because weight loss and restrictive weight management tactics do not inherently signal a positive change. Weight loss can often be a symptom of illness, grief, and stress.

Plus, the vast majority of diets, regardless of their motivations, don’t work. Most people who lose weight through dieting regain their weight within five years, and then some.

But in addition to the low efficacy of restrictive weight management methods, there’s more than just this element alone that makes workplace weight-loss — excuse me, wellness — programs a harmful concept:

1. They Perpetuate A Toxic (Not To Mention Distracting) Culture

What promotes greater motivation to head to work and ride the train of productivity? Discussing your weight, food choices, and personal health history with your colleagues, of course! Or better yet, being subjected to the suspiciously-joyful or woeful monologues of others carefully detailing their own dieting endeavors!

On the contrary, this cringey health-promoting tactic more broadly introduces a deeply personal, and often uncomfortable, element to a professional environment.

While many people already tend to chat about their latest diets, exercise regimens, or weight changes in casual conversation, the implementation of a formal wellness program promotes the toxicity of diet culture in a professional environment; with the exception, perhaps, of something like a gym or medical practice, in which health-related biases are already deeply entrenched.

Typical diet culture convos reinforce stereotypes about weight and health that can have harmful effects on mental, psychological, and physical well-being. There’s the assumption that weight loss is always something to congratulate, and a goal most everyone should be striving to achieve.

Through cultural messaging, many have also learned to associate trendy dietary practices of the day with traits of high productivity, self-betterment, and even personal morality.

Anyone who doesn’t fit cultural fitness and body ideals, then, is pressured to accept the emotional burden of shame, guilt, and low-self-worth.

There’s also something about prioritizing this diet talk in a standard workplace environment that just seems, I don’t know, distracting?

2. They Don’t Just Not Improve Health — They Also Don’t Improve…Well, Much Of Anything Else

There are several supposed benefits corporations have cited in their decisions to implement workplace-wide diets. A popular promotion for these programs, for instance, reverts back to the popular framing of high body mass index (BMI) as the enemy of productivity.

But there are also more insidious reasons that companies may push these programs. As stated above, diets and caloric deprivation have historically been tied to notions of morality, productivity, and good health.

And when a person is healthier, they’re less likely to need expensive physical and mental health treatments insured through their employer…right?

And there you have it: savings. That’s what it really boils down to, if you want to hop on this cynicism train with me (chew-chew!). One way corporations may mask this broader pursuit is by providing financial incentives and penalties for people who participate in their company-wide programs.

Depending on the stated health goals of the program, and its structure, success is typically measured by changes in weight, activity levels, and frequency of other health behaviors as gathered through screenings, surveys, and weigh-ins.

Unfortunately, this form of health surveillance is unlikely to result in net positives in the long-term.

In addition to lack of long-term benefit to clinical measures of health, wellness programs also show no significant value in:

  • healthcare spending
  • frequency of using health services
  • absent days
  • job performance
  • workplace morale

In fact, the last two may actually be negatively impacted by these efforts. Especially among employees who may feel greater pressure by their employers or colleagues to participate in these programs. Specifically people in larger bodies, people of color, and low-income workers—explored in greater detail below.

3. They Disproportionately Impact People Who Are Poorer, Non-White, Or Live In Otherwise Marginalized Bodies

There’s more to be said about the use of workplace diet programs than their evidenced ineffectiveness. It’s also worth exploring how the success rates (i.e. documented improvements) in these programs vary among people of different socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.

In the workplace and beyond, low-income workers, for instance, are targeted the most for having poor diets, being higher-weight, and low activity levels—dismissing the physical activity that comes with domestic and physical labor.

More important than recognizing higher rates of poor health conditions among marginalized communities, however, are the systems and structures that reinforce health disparities.

Specifically, the effects of oppression, and economic inequality, on environmental conditions, such as access to adequate nourishment or living in an area with close access to a gym—assuming the thought of exercise is at all desirable.

Too often, social determinants of health are buried under arguments of eating ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ foods and shaming people for sedentary lifestyles.

Because nutritious food doesn’t cost money, right? And of course, someone who works one or more jobs has the time and energy to devote to fat-burning/muscle-enhancing workouts.

And let’s not forget the disproportionate rates of discrimination experienced by people in larger bodies.

Despite the fact that body size is not an accurate indicator of health, people in larger bodies are going to be targeted more by a corporate wellness program  than people who are measured as being of ‘normal’ or ‘lower’ weight.

Since people in larger bodies are already discriminated against in hiring processes and employment, these programs may likely only further harm the financial, physical, and emotional well-being of fat workers.

4. They Create An Uncomfortable Workspace For People With Eating Disorders

Eating disorders affect people of all sizes, socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, and across the gender spectrum. If you think you can guess which of your coworkers have an eating disorder simply by looking at them, you’re going to be wrong.

Eating disorders have some of the highest mortality rates of all psychiatric illnesses. Recovering from one is no small feat. Experiencing relapse as a result of something as ineffective and unnecessary as a company-mandated wellness program is not something to take lightly.

One of the most difficult parts of recovering from an eating disorder is dealing with a broader culture that glamorizes diets, weight loss, and activity-focused lifestyles.

Unlike alcohol or illicit drugs, people who are recovering from an eating disorder can’t “quit” food. Eating disorder recovery often constitutes a lengthy process of deconstructing culturally-ingrained messages about food choices and body image, and cultivating more accepting relationships with food and the body.

As someone who has lived with an eating disorder, I’ve both witnessed dieting competitions within the workplace, and heard others with a history of disordered eating bemoan their own triggering workplaces operating in full-on, collective dieting mode.

Preoccupation with food, weight, and exercise is common among people with eating disorders. In fact, some research shows that people who are malnourished may be more preoccupied and responsive to food than people with adequate nutrition due to how malnutrition affects the brain.

This can make it harder for a person to think about literally anything else but food— including work, socializing, and other interests.

Workplaces that promote weight-focused wellness programs may place significant pressure on people with eating disorders to engage in conversations with other coworkers about food, exercise, or weight.

Refusing to engage in this process may risk social isolation and feelings of being left out. People may even be led to believe they’re demonstrating poor morale by refusing to participate in promoted wellness programs that could legitimately be damaging to their health.

Are There Any Benefits Of Workplace Wellness/Diet Programs?

Now, hold on — am I really trying to pass a blanket claim that these programs are evil, sadistic, and altogether bad news? Yes.

They’ve got to have some benefits if they’ve become so widespread — right?

The answer? Meh. My previous paragraphs outlining the lack of significant positive outcomes in key areas still stand.

The same research that supports a lack of long-term benefit do concede that employees who participated in corporate wellness programs at times provided self-reported success in adopting positive health behaviors.

Despite, again, showing no significant improvement in clinical health measures, such as cholesterol, healthy sleep, blood pressure, weight management, and more.

And there’s another thing about these programs: just because a workplace implements a company-wide wellness program doesn’t mean that everyone is going to opt-in.

So there’s already a motivation problem. People who don’t want to participate in a wellness program are unlikely to put in that much effort.

Whereas people that already harbor motivation to change their health behaviors will feel more inclined to opt-in, as it were.

Cultivating a work environment that does not pose unreasonable harm to workers’ physical or mental health is both a labor issue and a social justice issue. And incentivizing individual health practices by way of a corporate wellness program is not only largely ineffective, it’s also a shitty power move.

Do your employees and your accountants a favor: ditch the wellness program, pay your workers a livable wage, and advocate for a universal healthcare program that isn’t tied to employment. Improving the material conditions of workers is much more likely to improve health outcomes than any diet wellness program.



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