Dennis BeaverJanuary 20, 2023 • By Dennis Beaver

The cost of obesity to American business is staggering, running into the billions of dollars and impacts all employers through increased rates of health and workers compensation insurance.

So, how much control, if any, may employers exert over what their employees are eating while on the job?

I received that question and a related request from two readers, all coincidentally, in Texas. One, the CEO of a data monitoring facility, and the other a bariatric surgeon who performs weight-reducing surgery for people who are unable to control their weight otherwise.

Data Monitoring CEO’s Frustration

“Our company provides monitoring of things like burglar alarms, oil well performance, patient care, to list a few,” “Mike” wrote.

“Employees have high-stress jobs, monitoring data streams of critical information, working in our campus that is ranked as essential, by the US government. We have kitchen and sleeping facilities – and that’s the problem.

“During their off-time, many employees watch cooking shows and then prepare the dishes. Most have gained weight like you can’t believe, some dramatically. To make matters worse, I am required to supply the food!

“Several have developed obesity-related health problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes and are losing time from work. My insurance broker is warning of greatly increased premiums for health insurance and workers compensation. One day I got so angry that I yelled at them – and got nasty looks.

“What steps, if any, may I legally take to address their obesity and unhealthy food decisions when on the job? Also, do the chefs on these cooking programs care at all about what they are encouraging viewers to eat?”

Bariatric Surgeon Faults Television Cooking Shows

“Please don’t use my real name,” said Houston bariatric surgeon, “Dr. A” as people go crazy when I point out that, while genetics plays a role, still there is a large element of personal choice in becoming obese – knowingly eating too much of the wrong things.

“We ask our patients what influences their dietary choices. Often they reply, ‘watching cooking shows on television and then preparing the meals.’ “Many patients admit that the overweight chefs on these shows are a role model! It is really sad.”

“Mr. Beaver, why not speak to one of the better-known TV chefs and ask for a New Year’s resolution on healthier eating.”

Conversation with Christopher Kimball

And so I did – and had a conversation about healthy eating with Christopher Kimball of Milk Street – and a founder of the cooking show America’s Test Kitchen.

“How do you remain so slim and trim?” I asked. He answered in one word: moderation.

“Dennis, that’s really the key. But healthy eating isn’t that complicated. In addition to reducing meat consumption by adding more vegetables, and cooking at home with big flavors, we become very satisfied with smaller portions.”

Kimball sees obesity and morbid obesity “getting worse,” and offered these practical New Year’s resolutions:

(1) Reduce meat consumption and add more vegetables to your diet.

(2) One reason people eat too much is because the food is not satisfying, so they eat more of it. If you cook at home with half a dozen core, healthy recipes you can modify and use big flavor items and spices, the result is that you will be very satisfied with smaller portions.

(3) Finally, realize that most of the fat, salt, and sugar occur in packaged and restaurant foods which also supply far too many calories. Avoid them and never forget that moderation is so important! Personal responsibility is crucial for health in general, and especially when your weight is concerned.

What We Owe Our Children

There is another reason obesity in America is such a concern: How this impacts the innocent – the children of morbidly obese parents — at risk of becoming pawns in a tug of war with grandparents or other family members seeking custody.

These parents owe it to their kids to be around as they grow up. Family law courts are dealing with these issues — morbidly obese parents have lost custody — and their children suffer the loss of family.

And the answer to my reader’s question?

So, just what could or should an employer say or do to address employees’ unhealthy eating habits at work? I ran this question by a friend of this column, Southern California intellectual property attorney Glenn Dickinson, who consulted with his colleagues at the LightGabler law firm in Ventura.

They noted that “employers need to understand and be very clear on the limitations of what they may say in this situation.”

Here’s their advice for the CEO of the data monitoring firm:

(1) He cannot tell them that they have to restrict their eating.

He can offer healthy food options in the kitchen as a courtesy from the company, and can tell them that they may bring their own food but may not bring food to share with the group for health and sanitation reasons.

(2) He may offer complimentary health and nutrition educational seminars. This must be done without judgment or insistence as to what they must do, and, especially without shaming. But he cannot tell them how much they can eat or tell them what items they are allowed to eat.

(3) Employees are entitled to their meal and rest periods and can do whatever they want with them, including eating as much and as often as they want.

Consider that working 24-hour shifts might also be the cause of the health problems, in addition to the food they choose to eat … their sleep might be disrupted, they aren’t exercising, and snacking is a common way to distract from the boredom of working long shifts.

Also note that, under disability discrimination laws, suggesting that employees have health or weight problems may well lead to a discrimination claim from anyone who is disgruntled, or anyone that he decides to reprimand or terminate. Body shaming is a serious risk factor these days.

Go to Google Scholar Food Television and Weight Gain

Google Scholar is Google on steroids, taking you to all kinds of research and academic studies not generally found in regular Google. Spend time there and you’ll discover reams of material on the negative impact of television cooking shows — especially on children — and viewers who actually prepare the recipes experiencing a weight gain on average of 11 pounds.

Happy Healthy New Year!

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.