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Tuesday, 21 March 2006

You Are What You Eat

Written by Miles Cooper

Miles Cooper examines how performance and achievement in the workplace can be improved by good diet and nutrition...

Jamie Oliver’s high profile crusade to increase the amount of money spent on school dinners took him all the way to 10 Downing Street and resulted ultimately in a government resolution that a minimum of 50p would be spent on primary school lunches, with this figure rising to 60p in secondary schools.

Here, the Scottish Executive were quick to point out that schools north of the border were already well ahead of the new minimum spending quotas for their English counterparts, as Deputy Education Minister Euan Robson made clear. "I am delighted to see our unprecedented investment in school meals now being repeated south of the border. Providing children with nutritious food at school is one of the most important contributions we can make to the future health of our nation.”

As part of the Executive’s Hungry For Success drive, nutritional standards are being introduced for healthier meals and all children in primaries one and two are to be given free fruit at least three times a week. Additionally, free chilled drinking water is to be provided and vending machines are set to disappear from school dining rooms across Scotland. But during the Easter holidays kids have been out playing with their friends, joining new clubs and participating in sports, they aren’t likely to have paid too much attention to the proper nutrition needed to accomplish all of this, and, to do well in the classroom. Research shows that kids who are ‘nutritionally fit’ are more likely to have the energy, stamina and self-esteem that can enhance their ability to learn.

Eileen McLean has served lunch to schoolchildren in Glasgow for more years than she cares to remember and highlights the changes made in recent times to the bill of fare. “Up until quite recently we were serving the likes of pies, jumbo sausage and chips. Now there is more pasta, salads, fruit and potatoes – boiled not fried!”

McLean chuckles when she recalls her own school dining experiences, but is quick to contrast the children of today with her generation. “I grew up in Partick, and back in those days it was spam fritters with mashed turnip and semolina for pudding. Having said that, when I was at school all the boys played football in the playground, we had netball teams for the girls and cross country running – the kids were more energetic than today.” {mospagebreak}

Dr Gillian McKeith’s recommendations on seeds, weeds and pulses may be a bridge too far for many of us, but the connection between good nutrition and enhanced performance is one that is well documented and widely accepted. Irrespective of whether you are a top athlete or an office worker, your ability to perform to the peak of your abilities in your chosen profession depends largely on the fuel that your body takes on board. This is a belief shared by Klaus Knust, Executive Chef at Edinburgh’s landmark hotel InterContinental The George. Knust explains that, at The George, they like to expose their staff to healthy eating options.

“Everything in our staff canteen is freshly cooked and we use extra virgin olive oil both in cooking and in salads. Every month we have a healthy lifestyle feature from a different country and we organise themed staff lunches -this month’s was Russia so the staff were eating borsch, which is incredibly good for you as beetroot is so rich in vitamins and minerals, especially iron. People perform better and feel better within themselves when they eat healthily and so the company engaged a consultant dietician to conduct training for both the chefs and the waiting staff in order to give them a greater awareness of balanced, healthy eating choices. It was incredibly informative.”

Knust concedes that he loves his food, his wine and, being German, his beer too, but is acutely aware of the benefits of good nutrition.

“I personally am of the belief that a healthy diet is incredibly important in making you feel good - you have more energy, you feel fitter. I don’t like to tell people what to eat, but if you avoid heavy meals and eat small amounts regularly, cut out butter and double cream and try olive oil instead, you will feel the difference.”

Current Government-backed campaigns are urging employers to help their staff avoid what has become known as ‘Siesta Syndrome’ – haven’t we all, at some time or another, felt that mid-afternoon slump after a long, heavy lunch? Simple steps such as providing an office refrigerator and microwave so that healthy food can be brought from home, and promoting the idea of taking time to actually sit down and eat lunch rather than snacking all day, are seen as measures that employers can consider to help staff make positive changes to their daily eating habits. {mospagebreak}

However, Emma Conroy of Edinburgh Nutrition, points out that, in reality, employers aren’t always so accommodating.

“Taking a lunch hour is, unfortunately, often frowned upon, but leaving the workplace and taking time to eat lunch instead of wolfing a sandwich at your desk, has been shown to actually save time and increase productivity!”

Tailoring an individual's diet to their career can be a major factor in improving performance at work, as Conroy explains.

“The calorific needs of a sedentary office worker will obviously be very different from those of a labourer, but nutrition is about much more than calories. Some careers can make their own particular impact on health - for example, drivers are prone to weight gain and digestive problems caused by lack of movement.

“Drinking plenty of water and the natural fibre found in whole-foods helps prevent both overeating and constipation.”

The link between healthy eating and workplace performance is taken to its logical conclusion in a study carried out by the National Audit Office which estimates that obesity costs the UK economy more than £2 billion a year in lost productivity, but bad diet isn’t the only factor in slowing down production. According to the Health and Safety Executive, some 13.4 million days are lost each year due to stress at work, but Emma Conroy insists that nutrition has a positive part to play here too.
“Stress is a feature of all careers, but the right nutrition can actually help our tolerance of stress. A good supply of B-vitamins, found in whole-grains, eggs and meat, is vital for producing not only energy, but also the hormones which keep us positive under stress, instead of falling into depression.”{mospagebreak}

It seems clear that steps are being taken in schools and workplaces across the country in order to improve the nutrition and consequently the performance of our population, but what of that last great bastion of greasy gastronomy, the works canteen?

Strachan Wilson has the contract to run a mobile canteen for one of Scotland’s best known construction firms, and he has no doubt as to which side his bread is buttered.

“The guys we feed are working outdoors in all sorts of weather and they need hot, filling food. Pie and chips and rolls on sausage might not be the healthiest dishes in the world, but they’re what the punters want, so that’s what I provide.”

Awareness of the relationship between nutrition and performance is certainly on the increase, but Klaus Knust believes that there is work still to be done.

“It’s all about education, and I truly believe that people should be exposed to a lot more information about healthy eating, especially in the latter stages of schooling.”

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