Study numbers show diet affects worker health, claims

by Donald Horne10 Aug 2015
The benefits of advisor-managed wellness programs are many, but insurers are now providing hard numbers that back up the importance of promoting a fundamentally healthful diet to plan members.

“Eating a healthy diet shares much with exercise in that it’s often associated with improved physical health, but not necessarily improved mental health,” says Dr. Marie-Hélène Pelletier, the director of workplace mental health for Sun Life Financial. “But like exercise, our diets can also have a significant impact on our mental health.”

In a recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, a diet consisting of processed foods, such as hamburgers, white bread and sugar, was associated with a higher likelihood of depressive and anxiety disorders. Conversely, a diet of vegetables, fruit, lamb, beef, fish and whole-grain foods was associated with a 35 per cent lower risk of having a depressive disorder and a 32 per cent lower risk for anxiety disorders.

Advisors should be actively encouraging their plan-sponsor clients to promote healthful eating among employees – efforts above and beyond their current wellness programs.

Statistics from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reveal that more than 500,000 Canadians miss work each week due to mental health issues, with full-time employees identified as the most stressed group of any in Canada.

“Many other studies offer similar results – showing that the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ may in fact ring true from a mental health standpoint,” says Pelletier. “And what they are finding is that a good diet will lead to a decreased risk of mental health issues; it acts like a protective factor, and while not a treatment, it can be used in conjunction with treatment.”

The benefits of advisors hawking the benefits of healthful eating are obvious in terms of helping clients manage costs, but there is danger of turning off employees by taking on too parental a role.

“We will have more traction for change if people take ownership of their own behaviour,” says Pelletier. “We like to think of it as being an ‘involved contributor’ as an employer. Employees want to take their health into their own hands; they want information, they want to take action – even more so with the millennials in the workplace.”