As we all hunkered down at home during the Covid -19 crisis in recent months, many of us quickly became nutrition-obsessed aspiring gourmet cooks, trying to stave off the virus with immune-defence, anti-inflammatory meals that would take hours to perfect. The time would pass, the lunches would get longer. The meals and, our Instagram snaps of them, would get more creative each week. Remember those days of adding zinc-rich pumpkin seeds to nearly every dish? Who else tried an online pickling/fermenting course? Who else tried to make a sugar-free version of banana bread?
As life starts slowly returning toward normalcy, let’s not forget some of those healthy habits we started during the lockdown!
What we know about chronic disease and nutrition
For this international men’s health week in June 2020, it’s important to consider the impact health and lifestyle choices have had toward human resistance to the Covid-19 virus. We now know that people suffering from chronic disease have been at higher risk to the worst effects of the virus.
Some chronic diseases can be improved through lifestyle and health choices, such as: type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and obesity. One under-prescribed lifestyle change that can reduce risk toward (or improve) chronic disease is changing our diet.
How does men’s health and diet compare to women’s?
Harvard Medical School reports that men die younger than women, and they are more burdened by illness during life. They fall ill at a younger age and have more chronic illnesses than women.
Harvard also reports that, in most cases, women eat a healthier diet than men. In a Massachusetts, USA survey, for example, women were about 50% more likely than men to meet the goal of eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Workplaces and nutritional wellbeing
Workplaces can be doing more to educate employees on the differences improved nutritional choices have toward overall health, but also toward energy levels and performance. It’s a win-win: healthier, more productive workers equals healthier more productive companies.
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As we start returning to offices this summer, and employers seek ways to support sustained staff wellbeing, nutritional support for men (and women) is a smart wellbeing initiative to consider.
I had the opportunity to interview Angela Steel, founder of workplace nutrition company SuperWellness and delve into the scientific argument for today’s men to maintain their Covid-19 diet choices—for good. And we also discussed the benefits for today’s employer to invest in nutritional health education through a case study of one of the UK’s leading engineering and construction companies, AmcoGiffen.
Heather: What do we know about current trends on men and nutrition?
Angela: Overall men are becoming more health conscious than they once were – studies have shown that men’s diets have tended in the past to be higher in saturated fats and processed foods and have less variety than women’s but this is changing particularly among the younger generation.
‘The Game Changers’ documentary could well have been a turning point for men and plant-based diets. Traditionally vegan women have far outnumbered vegan men, however for the first time, the programme really highlighted some very strong masculine role models. Former UFC fighter James Wilks interviewed elite athletes around the world who thrive on a meat-free diet. The programme gained a massive following and did a lot to shift some of the well-ingrained perceptions around masculinity and food. We certainly see a lot of men (particularly the younger generation) keen to embrace a more plant-based diet for its health benefits as well as ethical and environmental reasons.
Intermittent fasting is also a strong trend among the men we work with. Men seem to thrive on nutrition approaches that require a certain discipline and the clear guidelines about food timing and restriction tend to work very well for them.
Heather: What impact can this have on performance and energy at work (for the positive or negative)?
Angela: We’re seeing that when men decide to make dietary changes they tend to go all-in. There do seem to be things men struggle less with – they don’t beat themselves up as much as women do if they have a bad eating day, which is a major reason why people tend to give up trying. We often see more dramatic changes in men, particularly in terms of body composition measurements (men do lose weight faster than women due to metabolic effects of a higher muscle mass). This goes hand in hand with higher energy and better focus usually.
If there’s a negative, it’s more in the initial hurdle of traditional cultural norms in the older generations, with the perception of ‘healthy eating’ and vegetables not being very masculine. The key is to overcome this initial perception and change men’s thinking, which new role models are helping with, but also often presenting the science in a way that makes sense is very powerful too.
Heather: How can workplaces support male workers to improve nutritional choices?
Angela: It’s really important to emphasise the scientific basis for any nutritional advice that’s given. Guidelines without justification are not very effective in motivating lifestyle change in men or in women. Workplaces can play a big part in making this information easily accessible, particularly for men who haven’t been exposed to it before. There’s huge opportunity in work peer groups, where a topic of conversation easily spreads among co-workers.
Measurement is extremely powerful in motivating behaviour change, which is why we use body composition testing frequently. Men often find this to be a wake-up call which leads to a shift in thinking.
Finally, the style of delivery is very important too. An element of competition, fun and camaraderie makes a big difference in perception, moving away from the idea that healthy eating is something restrictive and boring essentially.
Heather: What impact can this have?
Angela: We measure the impact of these changes over a period of at least 3 months and there is invariably a positive change across group average measurements. These are based on standardised workplace health and wellbeing questions covering different aspects of physical and mental health, as well as body composition testing and self-assessed scores of wellbeing areas such as energy, mood and food cravings.
Heather: How much does behaviour change factor in?
Angela: Behaviour change underpins our whole approach and should be a foundation for any workplace programme if it’s to result in long-term benefits. We use a model called the transtheoretical model of change which takes into account the fact that individuals are at different stages when it comes to lifestyle change. It means that programmes can benefit people who may feel very limited motivation as well as those who may already have well established healthy habits but want to keep motivated and set new goals.
Heather: Do you know of any case studies of companies who’ve invested in nutrition programmes which have evidence of sustained success for behaviour change?
Angela: We asked Shirley Haines, HR Director at AmcoGiffen, to talk about the nutrition programme we recently ran across different sites within the company:
“We specialise in construction and engineering projects and some of our locations have a high majority of male employees, who are site based, often travelling, working away from home and shift working on projects. We ran the SuperWellness Challenge in two of these locations, first in Cumbernauld and subsequently in Wales.
Cumbernauld was the first site to run the programme, and initially, there was a huge amount of resistance from our employees there about the idea of a nutrition programme – 40% actually responded to a survey saying that they would not take part. We decided to take a leap of faith and run an awareness day to provide them with the first-hand experience so that they could decide if it was for them or not.
The uptake on the day was amazing. As a result, the Challenge went ahead with an 80% male participation rate, which was sustained over more than 3 months to the end of the Challenge. One male participant said it had been ‘a huge wake-up call’ and the programme saw a lot of converts to cooking and healthy food.
The camaraderie, humour and team spirit were big factors in these changes and as a result there were some real transformations among our male employees – including an 18-year reduction in metabolic age, along with huge reductions in weight and visceral fat, which is a risk factor for lifestyle disease. Many of the men who took part went all in and it ended up being a life changing experience for them. I consider that the investment in this programme was extremely worthwhile as it addresses the issues of both physical and mental wellbeing.”
Heather: What do you know about links between nutrition and mental health? Is there anything specific to male nutritional tendencies which would impact mental health differently than with women?
Angela: In a corporate setting we often work with nutrition as an approach to mental health issues. Men do generally find it harder to open up about mental health, which may be why 4 in every 5 suicides are by men, yet mental illness diagnoses are lower than for women. With more men getting into food and cooking, it can provide a great bonding experience with a focus on topics such as stress and brain health.
A fact-based nutritional webinar about stress can prove a non-intimidating platform to open up a broader discussion on life’s stressors and what can be done to address them.
Heather: What’s your advice during this period of recovery from Covid-19 to men about their nutrition?
Angela: This is such a great question and I wish it was more often addressed in the media currently because there is such a strong link between nutrition and susceptibility to complications from Covid-19.
It’s all the more important here as Covid-19 is hitting men so much harder than women. Although rates of infection are comparable, men often suffer significantly more severe symptoms (63% of deaths in Europe have been among men). Reasons could be higher levels of underlying risk factors such as high blood pressure and also the fact that men’s immune system seems to react differently.
The 3 key areas for men to focus on in order to reduce their risk factors are:
- Reducing sugar intake as much as possible due to its effects on the metabolism. We know that diabetes and obesity massively worsen outcomes of the disease but even big blood sugar fluctuations without a diabetes diagnosis can worsen symptoms.
- Getting a Vitamin D check and taking a supplement if needed. Numerous studies have linked low Vitamin D levels in our body with a higher rate of mortality. This is due to the fact that Vitamin D plays a key role in modulating our inflammatory response, particularly in respiratory conditions.
- Finally looking to adopt an anti-inflammatory diet as much as possible, which means reducing things like processed foods, especially fats and sugar, and increasing plant foods and healthy fats such as those found in oily fish, nuts and seeds.
About the author
Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.