BRUSSELS — Call it a sensible school lunch for adults. Providing workers access to healthier food during the workday significantly curbs obesity and its related problems of diabetes, circulatory disease and cancers, according to experts gathered here last month at a meeting at the European Union Parliament.
The EU hopes to initiate a market-driven program that would enable its workers to use meal vouchers for healthy restaurant meals or to have access to healthier workplace cafeterias.
It's a win-win-win situation: Governments would save billions of euros in health-care costs; companies would benefit from a healthier and more productive workforce; and individuals would extend their years of healthy life.
But admittedly the devil's in the details, particularly in the European disunion, where countries remain skeptical of each other's ability to set standards and meet mandates.
The obesity pandemic
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when obesity was just an American problem. That has changed in the past 10 years. Obesity is now pandemic. Many countries in the Middle East, for example, have obesity and overweight rates higher than those found in the United States. Mexico is right on our tails, vying to be the fattest nation in North America.
Europe, too, is catching up. In many EU member states, about a quarter of the population is obese, compared with about one-third in the United States.
While part of the reason is genetic — clearly some people pack on pounds faster than others — obesity is almost entirely avoidable, especially at a population-wide level. Experts at the May 31 Brussels meeting, "Balanced Nutrition at Work," blamed the pandemic in part on the Americanization of Europe: more fast food and processed foods, and less emphasis on food quality and food culture. [Read: 8 Reasons Our Waistlines Are Expanding]
The devolution is evident particularly in Italy, famous for its "slow food" culture. Italy's adults have the lowest obesity rate in Europe; its children have the highest.
Back to basics
For Europe, the emphasis on workers' lunch is a return to form. Europeans introduced meal-voucher programs to feed workers and to increase productivity after World War II left much of the continent with food shortages.
The feeling, then and now, was that at least one solid meal a day could go far in promoting health. In contrast today, many workers across the globe feel imprisoned by work: There are few healthy, affordable options near work; and temptations abound, such as free sweets sitting on an office counter.
For many two-parent or single-parent families, breakfast and dinner also are compromised as we rush about getting to and from work. We rely instead on instant or processed foods to feed ourselves and our children.
With breakfast a blur, lunch a jail, and dinner a race, when can we eat the recommended servings of whole grains, fruits and vegetables?
Most European countries have government-sanctioned meal voucher programs, in which employers can provide their employees with a tax-free meal ticket as a benefit. This ticket, usually costing about five euros, can be used at a local restaurant for a meal fixed at that price; no cash is exchanged.
However, the meals in these "local" restaurants aren't as healthy as they used to be. Thus, the company — and by extension the government providing the tax break — is subsidizing unhealthy meals at fast-food establishments.
Tapping into its traditional, independently owned restaurant culture, the EU sponsored a pilot program in 2009 in six member states: Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden and the Czech Republic. This has given rise to possible tools, debated at last month's parliamentary meeting, for forging ahead with public-private partnerships.
In the year to follow, the EU hopes to establish a standard for healthy meals — some mandate of low sugar, salt and fat, the unholy trinity. While this is no easy endeavor, restaurants — even fast-food chains noted for unhealthy foods — would in theory alter their menus so that they can participate in the program.
There's still a long way to go, but at least Europe has begun the journey. Meanwhile, the United States is sitting on its rapidly increasingly enlarged backside.
Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on Live Science.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.