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Is obesity caused by workplace eating or fast foods?

Published:Wednesday | October 15, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Patricia Thompson, Contributor

The rising incidence of obesity and related chronic diseases in all sectors of society is now of concern to everyone. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Health declared that closer attention would be paid to the offerings at restaurants, especially fast-food.

The perception is that because of the proliferation of fast food outlets in the island, this is to blame for the poor eating habits of our people and the obesity problem.

Are fast foods, however, the sole culprits?

Where do people eat?

Admittedly, changing lifestyles have resulted in more eating outside the home than formerly, but where is the eating taking place? A recent survey of typical office workers revealed that 97.6 per cent of the sample ate food cooked at work at least daily and one per cent brought food from home. Lunch was the meal most commonly eaten and 39 per cent of them also ate breakfast at work. In addition, 36.6 per cent of the same workers also bought snacks, consequently eating three times daily at work.

The next most frequent place to eat was at home, with 95 per cent having dinner at least daily, and 75.6 per cent having breakfast also at home, although this was not daily, since the other times they ate at work.

In contrast, only 34 per cent of persons ate outside of work and home once weekly and 48.7 per cent ate out more than three times weekly. These workers ate out at restaurants rarely or once monthly. This shows that the greatest influence on worker eating was from home or the workplace.

Is home cooking healthier?

The perception by most of the sample was that their home-prepared food was healthier than restaurant food. Is this really so?

A comparison was made of calories, fat and sodium content between home-cooked chicken and fast-food chicken. For comparable amounts, the home-cooked chicken had the most calories and fat and comparable amounts of salt (see figures below).

Typical home-fried chicken is just as fatty and salty as that purchased from restaurants. Given that food at work reflects home cooking methods, it stands to reason that it is just as fatty and salty. Moreover, at work, the caterers tend to serve larger amounts than may be eaten at home.

A typical breakfast may have two large dumplings with two green bananas and yam with generous helpings of ackee and salt fish and similar food could be eaten daily. Lunch would usually be two cups of rice and peas, two pieces of chicken, some fried plantain and a touch of salad.

Workers may be loath to eat less since the meals may be seen as employee benefits which they would otherwise forfeit. It means, therefore, that exposure to risky food is much greater for home-cooked food and food eaten at work than at restaurants.

Should restaurants change their approach?

Similar concerns have been expressed about the monotony and inappropriateness of school lunches. Yet, restaurants and caterers often reflect customer preferences.

A sample of teenagers, when interviewed about their preferences for lunch, more than one half of them chose fried chicken over other cooking methods.

The Ministry of Health suggested that restaurants could be asked to label dishes with calorie, fat and salt information. Few consumers, however, consider food labelling facts or express concern about nutrition when eating out. The problem, therefore, is to increase awareness of the general population so that they would demand and seek to implement the needed changes whether at home, work or eating out.

The Jamaica Island Nutrition Network has started offering such nutrition education and training with short courses designed to encourage skills development and not just knowledge acquisition.

The first participants received certificates recently for the Level One Functional Nutrition course. These persons included teachers, food-service supervisors and human-resources manager, the gatekeepers of persons eating at work and school.

These courses are open to anyone at a supervisory or management level interested in improving their nutrition environment and they may become credentialed as nutrition advocates.

Increasing the advocacy power of consumers is the only way to bring about desirable eating in the marketplace.

Registered nutritionist Patricia Thompson, MSc, is the executive director of Jamaica Island Nutrition Network . Email: patriciat@cwjamaica.com or youhealth@gleanerjm.com