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Resolve to Help Employees Lose Weight

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, January 5, 2009

Happy New Year!

It's that special time of the year when people managers across the nation and in every industry face millions of holiday-bloated employees requesting weight-loss programs and diet-friendly cafeteria options.

Lexington Medical Center in West Columbia, SC, hopes to capitalize on employees' resolution-fueled demand for healthier, lighter fare with its "Better Choices" nutrition program. The program is several months old and already has registered better-than-expected participation from employees opting for healthier, less-fattening food when given an informed choice.

Better Choices uses the hospital's intranet to post daily menus for employee cafeteria fare that includes a breakdown of fats, carbohydrates, sugar, and other dietary information. A little green apple icon is attached to food that is either less than 500 calories per serving, or derives less than 30% of its calories from fat, or represents one serving of fruits or vegetables. Posters on the walls in employee areas, hallways, and the cafeteria provide useful hints about proper nutrition. Little paper pop-up tents on lunch tables provide quick "Did You Know" tips on healthy foods.

Steve Howell, director of nutrition services at the 384-bed community hospital, says Better Choices was created at the behest of employees. "They contacted us and asked for help to know what to eat," Howell says.

That's not as easy as it sounds, as Howell quickly determined. The hospital has plenty of full-time and part-time employees, and at any time any number of them could be on any number of diets; low fat; low carb; low or no sugar; Atkins; South Beach; the Zone; and Hollywood, to name a few. In addition, there are plenty of physician-crafted diets for employees with special health concerns.

"So many of these people are on different diets and we felt there was no way we could comply with every single diet that was out there," Howell says. "They were trying to eat healthier but they didn't know how. So, we tried to get the educational piece down and set some parameters to help them and educate them."

Coming from the Midwest, Howell says he was taken aback by the Southern diet. "I had people asking me if fried okra and french fries were a vegetable," he says. "You try not to laugh because you don't want to embarrass anybody, but it was just a real eye-opener."

Lexington opened the Better Choices campaign in August with a barrage of announcements and posters and the posting of dietary information on the intranet. Howell says it cost Lexington about $10,000 to set up the Better Choices program, with most of the money going toward marketing, a software package, posters, and other printed materials.

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