Out of the fast food lane
Workplace nutrition programs bring health gains, weight loss
By Patricia Kitchen
With not even a hint of longing, Ernest Gonzalez walked right past his “doughnut guy” – make that his former doughnut guy – to a neighboring vendor at the corner of Broadway and 31st Street.
That would be his “fruit guy,” who was selling an assortment of pears, apples, grapes and tangerines, as well as nuts. “I moved one guy over,” says Gonzalez, a delivery driver in Manhattan with United Parcel Service, who bought a container of almonds and an Asian pear.
That’s because of a workplace nutrition program offered by his employer that has gotten him eating a healthful breakfast, cutting down on dinner portions and reading labels in the supermarket. The result? “I used to feel sluggish. My body shut down. I felt drained and had headaches.” But no more.
Which goes to prove that real UPS men do eat yogurt – and turkey wraps and hard-boiled eggs. While those brown-shirted delivery guys may enjoy a beefcake image, some do, in fact, suffer from high blood pressure, cholesterol problems and – let’s put this nicely – a little portliness.
It’s because of such health issues, and resulting injuries and lost productivity, that Gary Ballensweig, operations division manager for UPS’ Metro New York district, gave the go-ahead to bring in Holly Anne Shelowitz, a certified nutrition counselor. For the past 10 months, she’s conducted before-work sessions for drivers, loaders, sorters and mechanics in Manhattan and the Bronx to help them alter their eating habits.
It all started when one overweight driver sprained his ankle hopping off a truck. “It’s a tough job, and we want to make sure we give them the tools to work safely,” Ballensweig said. The idea came about in a conversation with the co-chairs of a health and safety committee that meets weekly.
Since the sessions began, participants have lost weight, reduced effects of acid reflux, lowered blood pressure and avoided that mid-afternoon slump when attention can stray and accidents happen. Edward Hassani, 36, a driver, has brought his cholesterol level down from 260 to 220 as a result of eating breakfast, drinking more water and laying off candy bars. He even came in for one session when he was on vacation.
Other employers are jumping on the wellness bandwagon. A survey by the American Management Association found more than one in four of 211 companies that responded have increased wellness-related programs this year. Those offering nutrition support: 39 percent. That’s up from 25 percent last year. Alice Tully, health education manager at Vytra Health Plans in Melville, says half of the 20 wellness sessions her firm has put on for member employers this year have been nutrition/weight management/exercise-related.
Gonzalez, the UPS driver from Ozone Park, says he’s not only increased his focus and energy level, he’s shed about 25 pounds. Still struggling to let go of soda, he’s diluting it by drinking an equal amount of water. And that food cooler “that used to be on the shelf doing nothing now comes to work.” The day he shunned his former doughnut guy, he was carrying for lunch leftovers from dinner the night before – shrimp and rice. A former no-breakfast guy, by about 10:30 a.m. he had eaten his instant oatmeal with raisins and a blueberry yogurt.
One of the most enlightening moments came for Gonzalez during an early session when Shelowitz said to the group, “I bet you take better care of your car than you do of yourself.” He also found helpful her suggestion of keeping a daily food diary.
A Nutrition Educator, Shelowitz expected to work one-on-one with a couple of employees. But the night before the first session, she was told to expect 10-15. The next morning “I walked into a packed room with about 50 guys. It was so exciting. They had lots of questions and were open to what I was talking about.” (You can see tips for staying healthy over the holidays by checking www .nourishingwisdom.com.) Advice she shared at UPS:
Don’t skip breakfast and lunch and expect to function on coffee or soda. You’re then more likely to grab for that fat-laden fast food, a direct path to sluggishness. Eat well in the morning, she says, and “you’ll shift the nature of the second half of the day.”
Drink water. And don’t put it off until you’re feeling thirsty. By then, you’re already getting dehydrated. Water helps give you a full feeling. Plus, it helps you stay better focused. In cold weather, try drinking warm water with lemon.
Plan ahead. Stock up on healthful foods to bring to work with you. Don’t leave the day’s meals to happenstance.
To show cooking can be “a three-minute act,” she brought in her camping stove to do demonstrations, whipping up cinnamon pears, eggs over easy and whole grain cereal. “I wanted them to see how simple this could be,” she said.
Other issues she addressed: preparing ethnic foods in a healthful way, pan-frying instead of deep-frying; methods for warding off flu; and ways to snack but in a healthier way with lower-fat chips and salsa.
Not all employees took to the notion of substituting that frosting-drenched Danish with nuts and a peach. Some said they didn’t care about getting healthy. But those who did participate told of a ripple effect. They passed tips to co-workers and family members. A plant engineering worker’s wife brought ideas into her workplace. Ballensweig received a letter from a woman expressing thanks for her husband’s improved health.
Gonzalez and his wife are looking to develop good eating habits in their daughters, ages 8 months and 2, by “keeping sweets out of the house.” The parents are learning to slow down and think of what they’ll be eating, so as not to fall into that “fast-food life.”
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