how do you feel about a junk food-free workplace?

February 25, 2011

in culture,wellness

yesterday i was talking with my south by southwest (SXSW) co-presenter, michael samuelson. we were taking turns spouting off about what inspires and bothers us about today’s employee wellness efforts. and there was a lot, from companies overlooking the ways their culture negatively affects individual health to companies ceding their right to create a physical environment that promotes health. right in the midst of this exchange, michael dropped a bombshell.

“when i was the CEO of a blue cross and blue shield subsidiary, candy, cookies and junk food weren’t allowed.”

and he didn’t mean the company didn’t provide them in the vending machine. he meant they weren’t allowed. you couldn’t buy them at work. you couldn’t bring them from home.

i’m a sweets eater. not a lot, but definitely every day. (i believe in having some vices.) i asked michael what i would’ve done had i worked there. he told me that i would’ve joined the tobacco users and taken it outside. he then followed with, and i’m paraphrasing here: you know, we used to smoke inside buildings.

i’ve been mulling this over ever since. i’m an advocate of the tobacco-free workplace. tobacco is a highly addictive and deadly lifestyle habit that affects more than just the tobacco user. going tobacco-free at work leads people to quit and eliminates concerns about secondhand smoke.

junk food is certainly a key contributor to our obesity problem and its related health conditions. but to what degree is largely determined by how much junk food one eats—a big difference from cigarettes. i can have a daily portion of small treats. i can’t have one cigarette and get away scott-free.

am i being hypocritical or short-sighted? is michael right that some day eating junk food will join tobacco as an unsupported public habit?

i’m interested in your opinion. and if this type of dialogue intrigues you and you’ll be at SXSW, make sure to join us for our session: employee wellness: farce or untapped potential?

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Leave a Comment

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Nedra February 25, 2011 at 2:29 pm

I think junk food is a very different type of threat than secondhand smoke. I can understand not allowing it in company-sponsored lunches or banishing the box of communal donuts, but the key to healthy eating is moderation – not abstinence. I think a full-on ban would generate a huge backlash and lots of furtive eating that’s probably even less healthy.

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fran February 25, 2011 at 2:36 pm

nedra, i agree with you. i can’t rally behind a full-on ban, though i would like to see companies move on healthier cafeterias and vending machines, or, at the very least, employ design thinking and pricing strategies to encourage healthier choices.

i raised the points about hidden eating and denial with michael, especially since i am a former bulimic. (not outing myself here, i wrote about it on the blog: how can you eat just one cookie?!)

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Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth February 28, 2011 at 6:51 pm

Agree with both of you, and the studies that back it up…deprivation/abstinence and such can LEAD to disordered eating which comes in many shapes and forms…plus it fouls up the whole concept of personal agency and holding ourselves accountable (diehard existentialist here) 😉

I love “employ design thinking and pricing strategies to encourage healthier choices” as that’s what we do with our media literacy ‘swaps’ & tactics to appeal to kids in fun fresh ways; kind of riffing on the CSPI ‘better/best bites’ recos & putting a marketing spin to make healthier food ‘fun’ It’s a bit of a ‘switch pitch’ Also, if we applaud vendors who DO make healthier choices (whether it’s literally vending machine co selections or franchieses/company policy that overhauls menu items: http://www.shapingyouth.org/?p=7587 THAT helps pave the way for others to see the $$$ cash cow rev gen incentives proving ‘what sells’ can be healthy!

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fran February 28, 2011 at 7:02 pm

amy, i love “switch pitch.” i’m stealing that.

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Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth February 28, 2011 at 7:28 pm

It’s part of our “Dare to Compare: Gross Out Game for Good Nutrition” (which is a riff on Fear Factor Foods/blindfold taste tests, etc.) I’ve got plenty of ’em…from label lingo to ‘diet dissection’ (what goes in your body when you eat junk food) I’m a former Creative Dir/writer producer, this stuff is easy peasy to create branded coinages for play. Sure beats those boring ‘food pyramid/BMI charts’ (takes a page out of the ‘persuasion’ manual)

Here are a few more “Show & Tell Tactics That Stick in Kids’ Brains” (coagulated grease comparison/turkey taco vs beef…playdough extruder to demo hardened arteries, fun factor is a huge part of the learning http://www.shapingyouth.org/?p=1570

KatieK February 25, 2011 at 2:51 pm

I agree. A tobacco-free workplace is about protecting your co-workers from smoke. You make the choice to smoke and I made the choice not to. But, because of the dangers of secondhand smoke, your smoking could cause health problems for me. Junk food isn’t the same. I’m definitely in support of companies not providing junk food in cafeterias or vending machines, but dictating that you can’t bring it from home? That crosses a line. While my cookies may tempt you, seeing or smelling them isn’t going to cause health problems for you.
I think a company that institutes such a policy could get a serious backlash as I would expect employees to balk against that ‘big brother’ feeling around it.

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fran February 26, 2011 at 11:29 am

katie, michael spoke of how employees would “police” one another, much like my kids do when one of them’s breaking a house rule. the “big brother” was other employees. if going junk food-free became a company-wide goal and was supported and cheered for, that kinds of turns the tables. i think it’s a small number of companies that’d be shooting for that goal.

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Steve Boese February 25, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I don’t think the tobacco-free workplaces are about second hand smoke, at least not primarily anymore. Bans on smoking at your desk and inside buildings have been around for ages, and back then I think the main driver was second hand smoke, but today it seems like companies are extending the tobacco free policy to the grounds, parking lots, and even (attempting) to ban smoking inside employee’s personal vehicles if they are parked on company property. Add in more recent tiered benefit contribution rates for smokers and non-smokers, and some organizations outright ‘we will not hire smokers’ policies, to me tobacco-free is now driven almost entirely by economic reasons. Smokers cost more to cover, get sick more often, are absent more often and all the rest. Once the argument becomes about economics, then bans on junk food could seem very similar to the smoking bans to the accountants and benefits managers trying hard to hold the line on costs. Don’t get me wrong, I am not in favor of draconian and punitive actions against smokers, nor am I in favor of companies banning junk food. If a company really decides it wants to be in the ‘twinkie police’ business, that is there decision. I look forward to the first tweet or Facebook post about such a company that says something like – ‘I can’t believe it, after 10 years at (Company X), I just got fired for a Jelly Donut’. I am sure that will go over well.

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fran February 26, 2011 at 11:11 am

steve, it’s definitely about economics. wellness, in general, is about economics and is a business tool. tobacco’s particularly complicated, not only because it’s addictive and affects non-users, but because of its history. have you seen the video where doctors tout tobacco use — in all sincerity? michael’s point was yours: if it’s about economics, unhealthy eating habits come under the same rule. what i think tobacco policies have going for them is that public sentiment has changed over the years, and most people now support tobacco-free public spaces. i’m less comfortable with the no-hire policies, preferring the approach greg talks about below.

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Blair Klein February 25, 2011 at 7:17 pm

I think there is a slightly less parallel impact of a ban — secondhand smoke has been shown to have real and deadly effects on people… people who had no choice to avoid it when it was allowed in office settings. Junk food, while truly more than a “willpower” issue for some, does not kill you by being near it. It can be hard to resist, and seeing it around you can make it hard for those focused on healthy eating to stay focused, but it is not dangerous in and of itself.

I think it’s more important to have the right wellness programs and support for people who may need it when faced with being around it. Healthy alternatives when food is in the workplace (which makes me laugh… I remember when we used to be able to order food at meetings… We went way into wellness during the Great-Budget-Cut-Era without even knowing it!) and resources to help employees learn how to (and stick to) a healthy lifestyle go a long way.

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fran February 26, 2011 at 11:15 am

blair, we used to have a company-provided lunch when i worked at hewitt. the larger centers had mostly healthy foods. we in the smaller offices could pick from any local place. here’s where things fell apart, in terms of ordering healthy meals. i now work with a client who works with vendors to make sure lunches, whether ordered in or made in the cafeteria, meet certain nutritional standards.

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Greg Matthews February 26, 2011 at 9:04 am

This is a delightfully controversial topic. When Humana announced that it was no longer going to hire smokers* in states in which such discrimination was legal, it sparked a lot of controversy. A little bit from the smokers – but much more from those who saw such policies as a slippery slope. A slope that would lead to legal (or otherwise) discrimination against the obese.

And when we published a controversial blog post on crumpleitup.com (don’t bother to look for it; Humana has blown it away like so much dust) about the affects of obesity on society, it prompted a firestorm of comments that nearly led to the shutdown of the site. My point is this: obesity is a wildly sensitive issue. And banning junk food could be perceived as another means of ridding the workplace of heavy people.

Please note: I’m not saying that *I* believe that. But a lot of people will. The one thing that I do believe is that when companies (or governments) criminalize common behaviors, it rarely (if ever) STOPS those behaviors; it just drives them underground. But it also creates a workplace full of quiet scofflaws, which strikes me as a strong cultural negative.

And that means that this kind of idea is likely to remain just that … an idea. I don’t see any company having the political will to make this kind of change.

*Humana will hire smokers who pledge to join a smoking cessation program and make a good-faith effort to quit. I am a fan of this policy.

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fran February 26, 2011 at 11:23 am

greg, there’s a lot of anger and frustration about personal responsibility, or lack thereof. this ties right in. it’s really difficult to determine where personal responsibility begins and where it ends in some cases. take the “burger bill,” for instance. some cheer because they see this bill as a way to prevent people who are overweight from blaming someone else for their obesity. others bring up sound concerns, like where does the kid who’s obese because he’s been poorly fed from the get-go fit into this scheme? or what about those people who live in food deserts — nothing but fast food restaurants and convenience stores around them? for these reasons, i am a fan of a company taking multiple steps: cleaning out their cafeteria and vending machines; helping their employees and dependents learn good nutrition; working in their communities to ensure access to healthy, affordable food; and pushing for policy (like the new USDA dietary guidelines) that’ll make broad differences.

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laurie ruettimann February 26, 2011 at 12:14 pm

From my husband who is laying on the couch across the room.

“How do you define junk food?”

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fran February 26, 2011 at 2:02 pm

i hope he’s on the couch with a bag of chips…

that’s a great question–and very subjective, right? i’ll go with michael pollan’s food rule #7: food products containing ingredients that a third-grader can’t pronounce. (i can pronounce sugar, so i get to keep my cookies.) defining what is junk food would be almost as controversial as this topic is.

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Paul Hebert February 26, 2011 at 12:14 pm

These types of arguments are fun.

If I can paraphrase the question – “how far can companies go to reduce health care expenses in a company.”

The answer – as far as they want as long as they are footing the bill. The issue becomes more of at what point does government get involved. That’s where it gets really weird.

Here’s how I weigh in… take healthcare out of the employer’s purview and how does the argument hold up?

Once that constraint is eliminated then the argument changes a bit (IMHO.)

Smoking – sure – it costs money via insurance during the persons working lifetime (and no one will argue the second hand smoke gig – I still can’t believe we used to have smoking sections on airplanes) – but I’ve seen studies that in the long haul smokers costs society less than healthy folks ‘cuz they die earlier (http://www.forces.org/evidence/files/nejmcost.htm). Same goes for obesity (http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050029).

Those figures become important when we remove the healthcare issue from the companies since they are only paying healthcare typically when the smoker or the obese are living and having the problems.

My only point is that problem isn’t the healthiness of the employee – it’s the fact that we have employer-funded insurance which makes the discussion a financial one – not a lifestyle, behavioral, health one.

Find a different way to do the insurance – the argument kinda goes “up in smoke?”

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fran February 27, 2011 at 11:39 am

i’m with you on the employer-provided insurance, and i hear that conversation’s being reopened. 😉 maybe there’s a second chance at bat.

your point re: costing society more by keeping people alive longer is brought up in “hot spotters” in the new yorker. http://nyr.kr/hgb8S9 that’s a moral issue. it also speaks to the need to keep people healthy.

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Amy February 26, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Work is tough. People are under stress with a bigger workload and fewer employees to spread the pain. I’m not turning HR into the Junk Food Police after having been through layoffs, paycuts, no more parties, no more bonuses, oh, and your benefits premiums are increasing, too. Somebody bringing in donuts or birthday cake used to mean very little to people when times were good and everyone was enjoying high pay,bonuses, and the company would spend lots of money on monthly lunches, BBQ’s, and parties. Now the donuts and cake are the bonus treat of the week. Why rob people of those little bits of fun at work when everything else is so dire? We have bowls of apples & oranges all over the office, and they usually spoil. Unless you put it in a cocktail, an orange just doesn’t invite the same social gathering as a cake.

Besides, that Fiber One bar somebody is eating for breakfast has more high fructose corn syrup & mysterious ingredients than a cookie. How on earth would anyone ever define what constitutes junk and what doesn’t? And frankly, I think people behave better in a group with junk food than they do in front of the TV at home. I’ll only take one cookie if everyone is watching!

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fran February 27, 2011 at 11:45 am

amy, i like celebrations, and i think we need them. i’m not for banning the celebratory cake or donut. i’m not for banning junk food taken from home. i’m cool with making the typically offered office fare the healthier stuff and with helping people understand how to read labels so they know that their “protein” bar’s really no better than a candy bar.

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Tamara February 26, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Laurie’s husband read my mind.

As a registered dietitian, there are many foods that I encourage people to eat, in moderation, that other people may see as junk food (dark chocolate, for instance). Then the next question is “What is moderation?” Well, if you are 35 year old male who runs 40 miles a week, and can afford upwards of 3500 calories a day, and still maintain a healthy weight and a healthy lipid profile, your “moderate” amount is different than a sedentary 60 year old female with hypertension. I dare go so far as to say some people can even afford something like (gasp!) fruit snacks- say if they are hitting the gym right within 15 minutes and need a quick burst of glucose to fuel their workout.

A cigarette is easy to define, and it’s bad for everyone, no matter their age, gender, height, ethnicity. Food is not the same- even junk food. Don’t get me wrong- I’m not suggesting that what is in most company vending machines is a healthy choice for an afternoon snack, or breakfast. But I have seen so many of my corporate wellness clients who will “overhaul” their vending machines with “healthy” snacks, and what they end up giving their employees are highly-processed packages of carbs, devoid of protein, natural antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

I think having some “junk” in the workplace allows for teachable moments. If I am an employee and really want a few squares of a chocolate bar after lunch, how should I balance out the rest of my meals to allow for this treat, and still have a healthy day? To think that employees aren’t eating “junk” outside of work is absurd. But to ban them from having junk at work only teaches them that they are “bad” for eating “junk” foods, instead of teaching them how to learn to love whole foods, and to enjoy their “eat-less-often” foods (as I like to all teach clients to call them).

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Frank Roche February 26, 2011 at 9:59 pm

I’m starting a new campaign: Get Bread Out of the Office.

It’ll start like this…that ham and swiss on rye? Nope. Squirt mustard into your hand, smear a couple of pieces of low-fat, boiled ham (no more than 2 oz.) into the mustard, sniff the cheese…then throw away the cheese. Throw away half the ham…finally, chew what’s left at least 50 times per bite.

Peanut butter and jelly can be problematic, but people can learn to deal with it.

By the way, what’s a control freak eat for lunch?

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Michael Samuelson February 26, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Wow, this is fun!

Okay, here’s the context (always a good idea). The company in question is the Health & Wellness Institute. 90% of my employees were/are credentialed in the filed of health promotion and disease prevention…most with graduate degrees. It was/is critical that the folks at HWI “walk the talk.” Pretty hard to sell health while snacking on a Twinkie and washing it down with a Coke. Modeling IS CRITICAL in our industry.

Certainly, what employees do on their own time is their business. They can drink booze, smoke cigarettes and eat all the cakes and pies they wish. That’s their business. At the worksite, however, it is a different story. It used to be okay to drink booze (think office parties and C-Suite behavior), smoke cigarettes and cigars (think everyday for cigarettes and celebratory cigars at times of promotions and closing big sales) and — certainly — folks could bring in all the fats and sugars their little hearts desired (ah, perhaps it was not their HEARTS that desired the fats and sugars and my guess those hearts were not that little).

As for Draconian measures. Banning obviously unhealthy food from the worksite (Think Supreme Court Justice Nominee Borg) from the worksite does not fit my definition of Draconian. But, then again, that’s me. Work is 8 – 10 hours for most people, that leaves a whole lot of time for eating and drinking whatever you choose.

One more thing, toxins are toxins. You can wrap them as nicely as you wish but at the end of the day, toxins are toxins. By the way, have you looked at our children, lately? For that matter, have you looked at folks in the mall lately? How about the mirror? I recognize that my position is not a popular one but my responsibility is not to advance personal popularity…it’s to advance healthy lifestyle whenever and wherever I can. Sorry, if it offends.

Michael Samuelson

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Frank Roche February 26, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Maybe you could install treadmills at all their desks and make people run and run and run. People can’t come to work unless they drop and give you 20 (miles).

Seriously. does anyone listen to you if their pay isn’t tied to your whims? Persuasion works. Setting critical factors works. Showing people how to cope works. Being an overbearing parent never works. And your point is that you only control your “childrens'” behaviors when you’re in the back seat with them, watching their every move. Then they’re free to do what they want when you’re not looking.

I’d suggest there’s a non-parental way to do this. Um…those aren’t your kids. But I have a hunch there’s no telling you. You’re the da, and whatever you say goes. (Eye roll.)

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Michael Samuelson February 26, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Sorry; mixed up my Supreme Court folks…it was Justice Potter Stewart, not Nominee Bork who said, “I know it when I see it.”

Michael

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Michael Samuelson February 26, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Wow, how quick you are to judge, Frank. Bless you and I wish you good health.

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Frank Roche February 26, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Wow, how quick you are to judge? I’m sorry, but I almost laughed through my nose. To quote:

“One more thing, toxins are toxins. You can wrap them as nicely as you wish but at the end of the day, toxins are toxins. By the way, have you looked at our children, lately? For that matter, have you looked at folks in the mall lately? How about the mirror? I recognize that my position is not a popular one but my responsibility is not to advance personal popularity…it’s to advance healthy lifestyle whenever and wherever I can. Sorry, if it offends.”

And thanks. Yep, I’m enjoying my good health, both physical and mental.

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Michael Samuelson February 26, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Clearly, my intentions were misunderstood. Again, I apologize for anything you found offense. This is not what I intended. I will remain off this blog.

Be Well,

Michael

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Frank Roche February 27, 2011 at 10:37 am

Please don’t remain off this blog. That wouldn’t be helpful at all. Shining light in dark corners helps people understand. And people can benefit from what you have to say. The thing to realize is that in the online community, what any of us says can be — and should be — challenged. Just saying it’s so doesn’t make it so.

Lots of good people are here. You among them.

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Tamara February 27, 2011 at 8:11 am

(Fran, I’m not trying to hijack your blog, but this has been on my mind all night and is a subject that I am very passionate about.)

Mr. Samuelson,

I sincerely appreciate you adding in the context, and letting us know your company’s name (and therefore allowing us to visit your website and blog). While Frank had some valid points (and presented them in a very clever way) he doesn’t necessarily represent all the opinions of Fran (owner/writer) of this blog and the rest of the commenters. I hope you read this comment and stay in the conversation. This is a topic that I have grappled with myself personally and as I have worked with clients.

I can see your point of view- those of us who are health professionals (especially with higher levels of education) are seen as the example. People watch our every “healthy” move. While I think it is criticial that we “walk the walk”, and show people that it IS possible to live a healthy lifestyle in this busy and hectic age, I think we also have to be sensitive to the fact that the obesity epedimic is not as black and white as choosing whether or not to eat a “junk” food item. People are dealing with lack of income, genetics, lack of access, lack of education, marketing from food manufactuers, “conflicting” studies in the media… and the list goes on. I am also certain that you are intimately familiar with the whole piece of the puzzle that is behavior modification, as that is what your HWI team specializes in. If someone is using food as their “drug of choice” it doesn’t matter how unhealthy it is- they truly believe they need the food (drug) to cope.

If it helps, I’ll share my personal story: I struggled to reach my healthy weight since I was 9 years old. And I wasn’t “obese”, now that I look back at my childhood pictures with adult eyes. In college, I then lost too much weight (b/c who would take a fat dietitian seriously?) and would go through periods where I would berate myself for eating anything I had labeled “unhealthy” or “junk”. I was doing all of this while i was earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nutrition, and for a short time after I became a registered dietitian. In my early months as an RD I judged my overweight clients unfarily, and I judged myself unfairly. I spent way to many years not enjoying life, my health (and youth) because I led myself to believe that abstinence from “bad” foods was the only way to truly be a helathy, non-hypocritical RD. Then I had the privilege to intern at the bariatric center at Emory University, which helped me to learn the stunning complexity of overweight. And I stumbled upon a book called Intuitive Eating. Fast forward to today and I’ve now learned that my clients seeing me eat “junk” foods is just as important as them seeing me eat salads and quinoa and greek yogurt, etc. I’ll admit it here- my vice is anything gummy- bears, Life Savers, Twizzlers, Sour Patch kids- NOTHING healthy about those, just high fructose corn syrup and calories! I love the texture and flavor- but I HATE the way I feel after I eat too many. My clients appreciate knowing they aren’t lazy or “bad” for 1) desiring their “eat-less-often-or-rarely” foods and 2) choosing to eat them in moderation a couple of times per month.

I also teach my clients that they will have to really, really discipline themselves, because the biological draw to eat salty, sugary and fatty foods is STRONG. They can’t rely on willpower (no such thing IMO), but they have to DISCIPLINE themselves- just like they discipline themselves to pay their mortgage, car insurance, etc, instead of blowing their whole paycheck on shopping. This discipline becomes easier once they realize they can trust themselves to eat small amounts of “junk” foods (maybe even daily, as was mentioned above) without ruining their health, and when they start to feel better from eating better (and exercising!). The looks on their faces when they hear from a health professional that they can still have their cake and eat it too (literally), and that I have all the confidence that they can do it- that look is always priceless to me. Yes, they stumble, many times, as they learn to eat this way, and it’s never 100% perfect, but if they are ready, they get it, and lead a less guilt-ridden life, feeling miserable after every meal.

I realize this may not change your stance, and I was just hoping you would see where I, at least, was coming from with my comments above. I hope you stay and comment with us more in the future, as I feel your points are just as valid and welcome as our points.

TSM

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Frank Roche February 27, 2011 at 10:34 am

Tamara, I’m a fan of learning something new every day…thanks to your outline here, I have a month’s worth. I just downloaded “Intuitive Eating” to my iPad. I’ll dig into that today.

I’m glad you make the point that my fun and games don’t speak for all. I enjoy a little verbal jousting, I’ll admit that. Not a fan of the “you
re too fat and you smoke too much” approach to wellness. Maybe it’s my parenting approach: teach people to make good choices and help them with small, mid-course corrections. I can be there for every bite or drink or choice. For me, it’s about ingraining the habit of making good choices…from there, it’s up to the person.

Thanks so much for your story and the substantive thinking behind your work. Your clients are lucky.

Cheers.

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Tamara February 27, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Frank,

I agree with many of your sentiments. And I’m glad you have chosen to read Intutitve Eating. You won’t be disappointed! Please let me know what you think of it, and if you think it’s appropriate with the folks you work with. I’m always eager for feedback!

Tamara

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fran February 27, 2011 at 11:48 am

tamara, your story is much like mine. and i’ve come to the same conclusion. when we make foods “bad” and people eat them, then they often end up thinking they’re bad. i remember how my kids’ preschool labeled food. it was “growing” foods and “sometime” foods. i like that.

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Tamara February 27, 2011 at 12:26 pm

I love that- “growing” foods. I’m going to steal that one, Fran, and will give you all the credit!

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Chris Ferdinandi February 27, 2011 at 10:57 am

I haven’t read any of the other comments yet, so forgive me if I’m repeating what’s already been said, but here are a few thoughts in no particular order…

1. Smoking is simply not the same thing as eating junk food. Smoking can kill people around you, even if they don’t themselves smoke. Junk food can’t. Junk food in moderation isn’t good for you, but it’s definitely not horrible either. There’s no such thing as safe smoking, though.

2. Banning junk food isn’t the same as providing healthy food. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. And chocolate is actually a healthy vice, in moderation. It makes people happier, and ultimately healthier. (Science, not opinion)

3. If companies really care about wellness, they need to provide healthy food choices AND work to create a culture that encourages health and physical activity. That means giving people the time to actually engage in healthy activities. It’s foolish to ban junk food but have a workplace where people don’t have time to exercise before, after or during the workday. It’s foolish to ban junk food but have a culture that’s so high-stress that people have decrease sleep quality and happiness. Those things are very bad for your health, too. Banning junk food is just a band-aid, and a rather ineffective on at that.

Interesting discussion topic!

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fran February 27, 2011 at 11:58 am

great points, chris. frank makes the point that he doesn’t like the way companies are approaching wellness. there are many that are approaching it with a band-aid approach, which is michael’s point as well. creating a culture of health or wellness 2G requires upending the standard work environment and expectations and approaching wellness from all its angles, not just the physical. it’s going to take guts and vision.

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Michael Samuelson February 27, 2011 at 11:03 am

Thank you for your thoughtful posting, Tamara. It is greatly appreciated and, of course, I agree with all that you said. I was saddened and confused by Frank’s comments. Anybody who knows me or my 35-year body of work in the health promotion, disease prevention and cancer awareness fields would have been would have been equally confused.

The danger of secondhand telling and paraphrasing is that context, nuance, texture, intent and scope can get easily lost. What Fran presented was a small sound bite from two fairly lengthy conversations regarding worksite wellness. Had the responders been able to listen in on the whole discussion, I don’t believe the postings would have taken on the same visceral tone. Nor do I think I would have become the personification of draconian measures.

I take full responsibility for this misunderstanding. Fran shot me a rough draft before she posted her comments. I was concerned with the implied sameness assigned to tobacco and food (the public health danger of second-hand smoke being the clear differentiator), but, frankly, I am in the throes of a fairly complex medical issue at the moment and just didn’t have the energy to correct or add structure to the comment. No excuse…just lesson learned.

I am proudly a health educator and it would be both inconsistent of my past behavior and a dereliction of current responsibility not to explain the rationale behind the type of corporate culture that I established at HWI and what I advocate for others. So here goes:

• I understand the nature and power of emotionally-driven behavior and the dynamics of an amygdala hijack. I have written and lectured extensively on the topic. As I have stated previously, we are not rationale beings who emote, we are primarily emotional beings with the capacity to behave rationally. This position is based on evolutionary, developmental, neuroscience and not opinion, This is also a key behavioral understanding free of judgment or value assignment. People (you and me) run faster from pain than we do toward pleasure. This helps to explain why smart people do stupid things — the core to behavior economics.

• The social contract as first articulated by Locke, Hobbs, Jefferson and others dictates that, in exchange for you relinquishing certain personal liberties, I (the government, parent, guardian, and — if you will — your employer) will take on the responsibility of providing unbiased and equal measures of protection and opportunity for all of those in my charge. By design, this means that I cannot be all things to all people and that some are sure to feel disparaged and denied. Again, leadership is not about popularity; it’s about assessing a body of complex personal and corporate needs and taking action to support the blended goals and objectives.

• Given the points stated above:

o the power of impulse
o the irrational measures WE ALL periodically take to advance personal, subjective, wellbeing (run from pain)
o the multiple responsibilities of leadership

I advocate (plead, beg and at times cajole) worksites to create and advance cultures of health. Of course, this is not done in a vacuum void of awareness and education. Health literacy—as a key social determinate of health—it may be argued, is THE major concern in our country. Yes, at HWI, we educated staff as well as enacted policies deemed by management and proven by science to advance both health and productivity. Although in our situation, there was minimal resistance due to the focus of our work.

• The essence of the policy at HWI focused on teaching ways to show joy, celebration and advance team building that advanced instead of impaired health. True, we did not have cookies, cakes, and other high caloric, high fat, and/or high processed sugars on site. Instead, staff were encouraged to bring in true treats that were both tasty and nutritious and to share their recipes with others (remember HWI is a health education organization). Nor did we permit bowls of candy to be placed on desks. To Tamara’s point, many people struggle with impulse driven habits and ARE truly trying to do something about their weight and advance their health. For them, it’s nice and freeing to spend concentrated time in a culture where they will not be tempted to grab, “just one.” It sad to say but we all know that outside the office or shop walls there are plenty of opportunities to cave on impulse.

• Finally, as for the term “junk food” I am speaking about the obvious products that contain high levels of preservatives, violate all known science formulas for protein, fat, and carbohydrate distribution and provide little or no nutritional value. And, please, let’s not get distracted by arguments regarding “fit or fat” or the flaws/glory of BMI measurements. Yes, it is an important discussion but it also can be very distracting.

Again, thank you, Tamara for reaching out. As you can imagine, given all of my years in this field, I have a great deal more to say about this and related subjects but will spare this forum and keep the majority of those comments restricted to my blog, essays, books and lectures.

One last thing, I hope you and I meet one day Frank and that we have an opportunity to chat over a beer and a cheeseburger (okay make that a beer and a turkey sandwich for me … NOT THAT IS ANYTHING WRONG WITH AN OCCASSIONAL CHEESEBURGER!) 😉

Michael

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fran February 27, 2011 at 11:55 am

michael, thanks for jumping in here and sharing your perspective. your comment “it’s nice and freeing [for colleagues] to spend concentrated time in a culture where they will not be tempted to grab ‘just one'” jumps out at me, and here’s why. my sister finds our house is too full of sweets. as i mentioned, we have them every day, but small amounts. 8-10 miniature cadbury eggs for dessert, for example. having this available works for our house and, quite frankly, for me. labeling anything as forbidden or bad didn’t work for me as a kid and young woman, and i won’t do it as a parent. i will teach my kids and through my work that making healthy choices makes one feel better physically as well as about oneself, etc etc. but my way doesn’t work for my sister, who grew up in the same household as i did. she needs there to be no sweets or else she feels like your colleagues.

here’s the “rub.” creating an environment that leads to better health — physically and emotionally — differs by person.

f

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Tamara February 27, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Thank you for sharing your thoughts further, and staying with us. I’m sorry to hear you are coping with a medical situation, and appreciate you sharing your thoughts and energy in spite of that. I’m young, and new to the world of wellness, by many standards, and always love to hear from people who are wiser than me- you are such a person, and we can all learn from each other!

I look forward to that burger and fries with you and Frank!

Tamara

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Michael Samuelson February 27, 2011 at 11:21 am

Frank,

Given your comment, “… teach people to make good choices and help them with small, mid-course corrections.” I think you’ll appreciate how I approach that very topic of Kaizen and behavior:

http://mhsamuelson.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/when-the-boon-is-rejected-maintain-authenticity-beware-of-assimilation/

Either way, I’m prepared and I won’t take your remarks, personally (I promise)!

As a parent of three adult children in their 30s and a soon-to-be grandparent I appreciate and mirror your approach to parenting. Of course, in my case, the credit for their current states goes to my wonderful wife of 39 years. Yes, learning is a day-today glorious and shared adventure.

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Tracy September 22, 2011 at 8:41 am

I realize this whole blog was months ago, but I just found it now. I find it very hypocritical that anyone feels they have the right to tell a smoker they can’t smoke during their work day, yet people can eat whatever they want. It has nothing to do with second hand smoke because you can’t smoke in buildings or workplaces. But you feel the right to tell me that I can’t get in my car, drive down the street, and smoke a ciggarette (one time in a 9 hour period that I’m at work!). Yet, there are at least 15 (out of 28) employees at my office who are obese – not heavy – obese and it’s ok that they sit at their desks and graze on junk all day long. They have bags of chips out, they have candy bars stashed in their desks. They have bowls of candy on their desk, some have mini refridgerators in their office. The kitchen here is always flowing with donuts and cookies, cakes, and chips. These are communal things brought in by employees and sometimes vendors to share. On top of that, they all go out to lunch every day and eat more junk, while I bring a salad from home every day and go to the gym 3-4 days a week right after work. Yet, somehow I’m the only one who is being looked at and watched by the boss, because I’m “the smoker!”

Why don’t you look up the statistics on the number one cause of heart attack, the number one cause of cancer, and the number one drain on health care. I believe you’ll find obesity at the top of the list. And finally…. when was the last time you saw a 90 year old obese person??? How about 80? 70? I’ll bet you’ve seen plenty of people that age who have smoked their entire lives! I know that I have. I’m not saying smoking is good, I’m just saying it’s shouldn’t be the only thing people concern themselves with. Especially when it doesn’t affect my job performance in any way.

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fran September 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm

hi tracy. thanks for commenting. with more companies creating tobacco-free workplaces and some not hiring tobacco users, i can understand your aggravation. your comments hit on some of the natural tensions that occur with employer-based health initiatives and any sense of privacy intrusion. companies focus on tobacco use, eating well, maintaining a healthy body weight and exercising regularly because these are the big four that most affect our health, and therefore can make the biggest difference.

f

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OleanderTea January 31, 2013 at 10:59 pm

So, this guy is the head of a company that doesn’t want government interference in health care, but has taken it upon himself to tell his adult employees what to eat?

Somehow corporate paternalism is better than single-payer health care? What?

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OleanderTea January 31, 2013 at 11:19 pm

Observers often don’t know which came first, the health problems or the obesity, which is one of many reasons I believe it’s not appropriate to have these programs at work. I will not discuss my lifelong asthma with someone management has decided will be the “Health Coach”. That’s not their business, and it is not my job to educate them on the side effects of asthma treatments or that exercise-induced asthma can be an issue, or any of the other issues with asthma. Again, that’s a conversation for my physician.

If we are really interested in reducing obesity, the insurance industry will treat it as any other medical condition (as they do in Europe, by the way) and allow people to get proper treatment by a physician, with medications if needed. Stop shunting fat people over to the diet industry and charlatans who take their money then blame the customer if they fail.

One final thing that I need to point out, and it bears repeating. If one exercises and eats well, it will make one FIT. It will not necessarily make one WELL. They are not the same thing. The person who struggles with chronic migraine, or Type 1 Diabetes, or effects of rheumatic heart disease, will not be WELL even if they become FIT. And those people are in the workforce as well, and will be seriously cheesed off at the notion that getting a pedometer and counting steps taken daily will magically make them “well”.

On a side note, I came across this blog while googling for some non-buzzword-filled thoughts about employee health intitiatives. I have enjoyed what I have read so far. Thank you. 🙂

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Zack April 16, 2013 at 1:25 pm

I own a small company but used to work at a place where there were always irresistible treats being left in the common areas. Like most of us, I have little willpower so I’d indulge and then put myself into a food coma. Not to mention how difficult it made it to stick to a diet and maintain my fitness goals. So when the same thing started happening at my company, I banned the sharing of any processed foods. My employees can still bring junk food to work to eat for themselves but they are not allowed to offer to share it with others, or leave it out tempting everyone. This policy used been well received and I hope other offices adopt similar ones.

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