The folly of employee weight loss challenges

Man at desk looking unhappy while forcing himself to eat a salad
February 20, 2024
Explore the pitfalls of workplace weight loss challenges. Understand why these challenges may perpetuate harmful dieting notions, overlook genetic and health factors, and often lead to unsustainable and potentially risky diet approaches. Discover alternative, compassionate ways companies can support employee health without focusing solely on weight loss, including promoting medication coverage, dietitian services, and a healthier food culture at work.

The folly of employee weight loss challenges

Well intentioned companies the world over likely strive to encourage their employees to improve their health by way of healthy living challenges which more often than not, include weight loss. Sadly even the best of intentions sometimes don't result in the outcomes we're hoping for.

The Problem

A hazard sign

There are actually many problems with weight loss challenges, especially those that reward the largest losses including:

  • They reinforce some of the worst notions of modern day dieting - restriction, suffering, and the idea that those who aren’t at lower weights simply aren’t trying hard enough.
  • They penalize employees whose health, genetics, and lives challenge weight loss. The fact of the matter is that there are so many factors that influence our weights that are beyond our control. From genetics, coexisting medical conditions, and social determinants of health, the notion that playing fields are level and that everyone if they just want it badly enough can make it happen is a deeply inequitable one. 
  • They reinforce some of the worst notions of modern day dieting - restriction, suffering, and the idea that those who aren’t at lower weights simply aren’t trying hard enough.
  • Weight loss challenges by definition focus attention on diet and exercise as the only solution, and yet we live in an era where there are safe and extremely effective medications and surgeries for weight management. More importantly they tend to inspire participantstient to undertake highly restrictive and extreme diets. Not only are these diets non-sustainable (and therefore the losses they lead to will also not be sustained), but they may be nutritionally deficient. Lastly, hHighly restrictive diets are also known to be risk factors for the genesis of disordered eating.

The Solution

A notebook that says 2024 resolutions with checkboxes

If a company is looking to inspire weight loss among their employees, here are some easy suggestions:

  • Offer the coverage of antiobesity medications within your employees’ health plan and then actively inform them on the same. People who use these medications who either don’t lose weight or suffer rare side effects won’t continue to take them, leaving only those employees who experience significant benefits staying on them. Sustained weight loss is known to markedly reduce the risk of developing weight responsive medical conditions and mitigate the risks of those conditions in patients who already have them and in so doing may decrease the use and prescription of other medications. Higher weights are also shown to be associated with greater levels of presenteeism and absenteeism and as such, helping employees to sustain weight losses is likely to improve productivity and offset their costs.
  • Ensure the coverage of registered dietitians’ services within your employees’ health plan as regardless of whether a person’s weight loss includes pharmacotherapy or surgery, dietary counseling to ensure safety and maximize health is essential.
  • Audit your company’s food culture. What types of foods are offered for working meetings, or in the employee break room? If generally these include fast food and sugar sweetened beverages clearly there is room for improvement.
  • Consider helping in the cultivation of healthy living. Team building can involve cooking workshops. Fitness can be encouraged by way of walking meetings and renovating stairwells to improve lighting, cleanliness and decor and signage can be installed to promote their use. 

At the end of the day, healthy living involves a wide range of privilege, and rather than having a competition that in part rewards the same, consider what you as a company might do to help break down barriers and compassionately and effectively support your workforce. The only healthy living competitions I’d like to see are between corporations for those who do the most work to enable, support and improve their employees’ healthy lifestyles.

If you'd like some help with your workplace weight loss efforts, here's a great place to start.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff
Medical Director
Since 2004, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an Associate Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Ottawa, has dedicated his practice to obesity medicine. ‍ Canada's most outspoken obesity expert, Dr. Freedhoff is regularly sought out by the international media for commentary on nutrition and weight matters, and his book, The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Them Work. Dr. Freedhoff's diet agnostic philosophy and lessons learned from working with over 10,000 patients is the foundation of what Constant Health has been built upon.
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