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Food study seeks to help employees make healthier choices

Nov. 17, 2016, 8:46 AM


When dining in the Medical Center North breakroom or the Simply-to-Go counter at Courtyard Café, Vanderbilt University Medical Center employees can get a little help making informed food choices by picking a color: green, yellow or red.

Prepared food items in the Café and vending machine options in the break room have been researched and assigned a color to give employees the knowledge to make a healthier choice as part of the “Food Choices at Work: Making the Healthiest Food the Easiest Choice” study.

Led by David Schlundt, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychology, the study began two years ago and included a campus-wide eating behavior survey, focus groups and data research.
The goal was to understand how and why employees make food choices when eating at work and how to make it easier for them to find healthier choices.

“Making food choices at work can get complicated based on time, food availability, cost, nutrition knowledge, health status and food preferences,” said Dianne Killebrew, M.Ed., R.D., LDN.
The aim of color-coding food choices is to offer a quick, easy to understand way to identify healthier choices.

Determining a scoring system to rate foods and beverages as red, yellow or green began with documenting the nutritional analysis of recipes and the nutrient labels on foods and beverages.
Using this data, dietitians and medical experts rated the foods by color. From this data, an algorithm was derived to calculate the nutrient density of foods and beverages.

Green means foods should be consumed often, because they are lower in calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar. Yellow means that foods could be eaten sometimes because they are moderate in calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar. Red indicates foods should be chosen rarely because they are higher in calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar and lower in fiber.

“The study isn’t meant to tell people what to eat or not to eat, but to provide an easy way to identify healthier choices,” Schlundt said.

“Good nutrition is the cornerstone of good health. We live in an age where rates of diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure are at an all-time high. We know nutrition, physical activity and managing stress are key factors to living a healthier life. If we make good food choices we can have better health and a longer life.”

Three months prior to the study’s start, the team tracked what food and beverages people were choosing.

Now they are tracking sales from September to the end of November, while the color codes are in place, and comparing that with sales from the previous three months.

The goal is to understand how color coding foods and beverages impacts choices made at the point of purchase.

“If we can show with data that it doesn’t hurt business and benefits employees to make a healthier choice, that’s a positive thing,” Schlundt said.

The research team includes Lori Rolando, M.D., medical director of Health Plus, Tesa Dean, research analyst, Marissa Wertheimer, M.S., R.D., Health Plus Wellness Coach, Kemberlee Bonnett, research analyst, and interns from the Vanderbilt Dietetic Internship Program.

The findings will be shared with the Medical Center’s Food Advisory Council and can help shape the health and wellness food system blueprint for the campus and future food policies.
An interactive website was also developed to be used for employees to make healthier food choices at any time.

The study is explained in detail here, and by plugging in information from a nutritional label, you can color code foods at any time.

The study is funded by the Vanderbilt Institute of Clinical and Translational Research.

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