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Health and wellness on farms

Teagasc researchers have applied the Total Worker Health model to new research to support the health and wellbeing of farmers. By looking at how diet and exercise impact health and safety, they hope to alert farmers in Ireland to the health issues directly impacting them.

Being overweight or obese is now a major public health issue worldwide and a recognised risk factor for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular disease (CVD) and certain cancers. More recently, it has been a risk factor for experiencing Covid-19 more severely.

At the same time, national data from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) shows that, within the age range 17-64, death from CVD is five times higher among farmers than occupational groups with the lowest rate. Irish farmers also face death from cancer at three times a higher rate in the same comparison.

Diana van Doorn, Teagasc Walsh Scholar, says: “Irish and Australian studies have shown that a mixture of risk factors for CVD, particularly being overweight or obese, is high among farmers.

“Farming is also widely recognised as a dangerous occupation because of the common occurrence of work injuries and fatalities, and being overweight has been highlighted as a risk factor for occupational injury.

“On top of this, being overweight puts people at higher risk of other physical and mental disorders, like musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and depression.”

From a Total Worker Health perspective, a look into farmers’ dietary habits is needed to reduce the risk of dying or having a disease associated with being overweight. While the causes leading to someone being overweight can be complicated, it’s well known that unhealthy diets are an important factor. Especially problematic is an increased consumption of energy-dense food high in fat and sugars.

Reducing how much unhealthy fat, sugar and salt people eat and drink each day and increasing how much fruit and vegetables they eat and drink are key targets in Ireland’s National Health Policy.

Exploring causes for farmers’ excess risk of death

Teagasc researchers have done research to find possible causes for this excess risk of death and to assess the impact of diet and exercise on farmer health.

“We surveyed male farmers aged over 18 for our study,” says Diana. “The average age of participants was just over 41, which is lower than the national average age for farmers which is around 57.”

Almost two-thirds (64%) of participants reported having a farm size of over 40.5 hectares (well above average), and farmers from all the main farming enterprises took part in the study.

Weight and weight loss behaviours

When using BMI classifications, almost two-thirds (62%) of participants were found to be overweight or obese. 65% reported being ‘about the right weight’, while 25% reported being ‘too heavy’. This meant that half of the farmers who reported being ‘about the right weight’ were actually classified as overweight or obese.

Eating and cooking habits

Findings in relation to eating and cooking habits showed that 60% of farmers reported consuming fried food more than once per week. Over 70% reported consuming full fat milk instead of low fat milk.

More than one in three reported that salt was added during cooking (35%) and/or to food at meal-times (36%). Interestingly, those who reported adding salt during cooking were significantly more likely to add salt at meal-times.

Almost half of farmers (46%) reported consuming red meat most days of the week whilst one in six farmers (17%) reported consuming processed meats most days of the week.

“Younger farmers (those aged under 45) were significantly more likely to report eating processed meats and poultry on most days of the week,” says Diana. “But no significant associations were found between age and the daily recommended servings of vegetables, carbohydrates, dairy or fats, nor in the amount of red meat and fish eaten.”

The limitations of exercise

Several Irish studies have indicated that farmers get more than the internationally recommended 10,000 steps per day, but such studies are limited as they don’t cover year-long sampling. 

“In our study the majority (93%) of participants reported being moderately/highly physically active,” says Diana.

Research by Loughman et al, however, has indicated that farmers have a high sitting time of around 8.26 hours a day.

Furthermore, the exercise they do get doesn’t include enough moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity (MVPA) – the kind of exercise that provides CVD protection.

Making healthier choices

“The findings from our study provide a greater understanding of how dietary habits might potentially contribute to poorer health outcomes among farmers,” says Diana. “This helps to underline the importance and urgency of developing effective and tailored health promotion interventions for farmers, including healthy eating campaigns as part of Total Worker Health interventions.”

Irish farmers are recognised for producing quality food with numerous health benefits, yet they eat a low proportion of the food they produce directly. Instead, they consume food bought in shops. This food is often produced and processed in an international system, and the ingredients in – and processing of – such foods can lead to health impacts. 

“Our advice for farmers is to check the Health Service Executive (HSE) Food Pyramid for guidance on healthy food consumption,” says Diana. “Farmers should also undertake a health check regularly and consult their GP before making significant health-related lifestyle changes.

“While food choice and consumption is largely a personal behavioural issue, support is needed – and available – to assist farmers in making healthy choices.”

Total Worker Health

The Total Worker Health model uses policies, programmes and practices to look after workers’ health, safety and wellbeing. It aims to protect workers from work-related health and safety dangers and prevent injury and illness.

1 in 7

One in seven farmers reported having been told by their doctor in the previous 12 months to lose weight.


One-third of participants (31%) reported having actively tried to lose weight in the past 12 months.

Dietary habits compared to national guidelines

The researchers did a study review of the reported daily intake of food groups by participants and compared it to Food Pyramid guidelines. They found the following:


The vast majority of farmers (94%) reported eating less than the recommended five portions of fruit and/or vegetables per day.


Two-thirds (67%) consumed less than the recommended three servings of dairy products per day.

1 in 4

One in four (24%) farmers consumed more than the recommended two servings of protein per day.

1 in 10

One in 10 (11%) farmers reported consuming more than two servings of fats per day.


60% of farmers reported eating sugary and/or salty snacks between meals the previous day. Of these, the majority (72%) reported eating two or more sugary and/or salty snacks. 


In comparison, just 35% of participants (non-industry specific) from national survey data reported consuming one or more sugary and/or salty snacks per day.

Further information

This article is based on the following paper: van Doorn, D., Richardson, N., Storey, A., Osborne, A., Cunningham, C., Blake, C., McNamara, J. (2021) ‘Investigating the Dietary Habits of Male Irish Farmers to Prevent Mortality and Morbidity’. Safety, 7: 54.  <doi.org/10.3390/safety7030054>.


Diana van Doorn, Teagasc Walsh Scholar, Ashtown Food Research Centre, Teagasc, Dublin.

Noel Richardson, Director National Centre for Men’s Health, Department of Science and Health  Institute of Technology Carlow.

Aubrey Storey, Lecturer in Exercise and Health Science, Waterford Institute of Technology.

John McNamara, Teagasc Senior Health and Safety Specialist Kildalton, Co. Kilkenny. john.g.mcnamara@teagasc.ie


The participation of farmers in this study is greatly acknowledged, as is the input of all authors to the original paper.

Further reading

Loughman, T.A.,  Flaherty, J.T., Houlihan, A, and Dunne, D. (2021) ‘A Cross-Sectional Analysis of Physical Activity Patterns, Aerobic Capacity and Perceptions About Exercise Among Male Farmers in the Mid-West Region of Ireland’, Journal of Agromedicine. https://doi.org/10.1080/1059924X.2021.1879699.

Smyth, B., Evans, D.S., Kelly, A., Cullen, L., and O’Donovan, D. (2013) ‘The farming population in Ireland: Mortality trends during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years’, European J. Public Health 2013, 23, pp. 50–55, https://doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/cks017.


This research was funded through the Teagasc Walsh Scholarships Programme.


Farmers Have Hearts Cardiovascular Health Programme