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The Skinny On Whole Foods’ Anti-Fat Policy

| Tuesday February 2nd, 2010 | 22 Comments

Some people just don’t like carrots, but nobody likes a stick.  This is what John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods and notorious health care blow hard, doesn’t seem to get.  In an attempt to reduce the cost of health care for its employees, Whole Foods created a new policy to offer deeper discounts on food to employees that can squeeze into the company’s [narrow] definition of health. The “Team Member Healthy Discount Incentive” is a voluntary program that evaluates the health of employees based on Body Mass Index (BMI), blood pressure, cholesterol, and nicotine-use.  Based on these specific criteria, employees can qualify for an additional 2-10% discount on top of the 20% discount all employees already receive.

But instead of acting as an incentive, the program may have the exact opposite effect and act more like a punishment for larger-bodied employees who already have to deal with living in a society whose last acceptable “–ism” is hating on fat people.  The issue here is not about companies encouraging the well-being of their employees.  The issue here is that a large company is adopting a prescriptive definition of what health means for all people and bodies, and  imposing that criteria upon its employees.

In a letter to employees, Mr. Mackey claims that “Supporting Team Member Happiness and Excellence is a very important core value.”   While there is certainly evidence that generally suggests that high cholesterol, high BMI, and cigarette smoking are detrimental to a person’s well-being, there are many happy, healthy, active, fat people that are conscious of their food choices that do not fall within the prevailing acceptable range for BMI that Whole Foods will use to determine health.  There are not, however, many truly happy people that suffer from self-hatred, body dysmorphia, unreasonable expectations of beauty, or working against a body’s biology to comply with over-generalized definitions of health.

Now I must confess: I am one of those people who are obsessed with health, nutrition, and exercise, and as a former professional athlete I can tell you that the obsession in and of itself was probably less healthy than moderate servings of whatever foods it was that I was telling myself to strictly avoid.  I also know that there are some things that certain bodies will never do: some people will never run distance well, some people will never sprint well, some people will never gain weight beyond a certain point, and some will never lose it.  The most important thing is for each of us to find out what our body’s optimal balance is, and at a certain point accept and love whatever that is.

While there are plenty of effective ways to encourage employees to live a healthier lifestyle and find their own balance, creating a regime of shame based on a narrow and inaccurate definition of health–such as BMI–arguably creates a hostile work environment.  This isn’t encouraging healthy eating, it’s colonizing the body. While it’s true that our country suffers from an epidemic of obesity-related diseases, I think it’s safe to say that the Whole Foods employee population is NOT the population that needs to be targeted. The very act of working at an organic grocery store eliminates the greatest obstacle to health that many Americans face– access to affordable healthful food options and information on living a healthy lifestyle.

The Whole Foods anti-fat policy will not encourage a change in behavior among employees, but will rather alienate larger-bodied customers and employees.  It will not likely save the company money, but instead earn it loads of bad press, lost business, and it will likely get them sued.  If the company wanted to create incentives that encourage healthy lifestyles, perhaps it could offer discounts at gyms and for other activities, create opportunities for employees to be active outside of work, offer free classes or seminars on how to lose weight or improve one’s diet, or even bring in a dietitian to sit down with each individual employee to help him or her set goals and create a plan of action to achieve his or her desired results.  These measures would probably cost less than attorney fees and lost revenues.

It is a little ironic that “Whole Paycheck’s” solution to obesity is to offer skinny people healthful food for less.  According to their own logic, shouldn’t it be the other way around?


▼▼▼      22 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • boogalou

    the new whole foods policy is disheartening and alienating to employees and customers. it's hard to imagine any dietitians, or health experts subscribing to the BMI-correlation to overall general health, and i wonder who was part the think-tank implementing this at such a powerful retail chain. your incentives listed would not only encourage better physical health, but also help dispel myths, educate, and create a more cohesive place of employment.

  • joey

    yessss! yes yes yes. just waiting to see the lawsuit from the national association to advance fat acceptance.
    sheesh.

    • Jayme84

      Has it dawned on you that maybe its not fat acceptance, but just all around empathy for other people that is the goal?

  • williamhertling

    I don't think you can say that Whole Foods is creating a “creating a regime of shame” by offering a discount on healthcare costs (a cost that I assume to be private, in the same way that other salary and benefits information is usually private.) I doubt that one employees knows what another employee paid for their healthcare. Likewise, I doubt that an insurance discount is going to create a regime of shame for smoking.

    I'm no fan of Whole Foods, or even the way we run healthcare in this country, but it seems likely healthcare simply costs less for people who are at a reasonable weight. I'm not sure it is a worthwhile reason to vilify Whole Foods.

    • WFM TM

      Just for the record, I work for Whole Foods, and this program is bad. It rewards employees that meet certain criteria, which are largely genetic, by giving them a higher percentage discount on food. It does not reduce what the employee pays for insurance. However, the funding to cover this increased discount comes out of Whole Foods' bottom line, which trickles down to every other aspect of the business, thus raising costs and ultimately reducing wages. This is frustrating for employees like myself that exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet but do not have a “healthy” BMI. I am genetically gifted in that I have naturally low blood pressure and cholesterol, but no matter how much I starve myself ( believe me, I have tried) I am unable to get into the healthy BMI range for my height. My doctor says I'm healthy, I look healthy, I feel healthy, and I have no health problems. Whole Foods is telling me that in order to deserve a greater discount, I would need to severely reduce my caloric intake and exercise for hours a day. Whole Foods is wrong, and I don't want to pay for other employees, who may likely be less healthy than I am, to get a higher discount simply because of genetics. I'm sure that other employees with genetic predispositions to high cholesterol or blood pressure feel the same way.

  • suzjazz

    John Mackey is a notorious a-hole who wrote an arrogant and ignorant editorial to the Wall St. Journal not long ago. He contends that health care is not a human right. He claims (falsely) that Whole Foods employees have great health insurance plans. If he had his way, no one who smokes, is overweight or obese, drinks, or uses drugs should get any health insurance because their bad habits will cause illnesses which are essentially their fault. Never mind that these behaviors are addictions which are often beyond a person's control. This is essentially the Republican view of health care: don't get sick, if you do, it's your fault, and please die…soon. Not hiring fat people for ANY job is discrimination. This is very different from offering employees incentives to adopt better health habits. Making people feel bad and ostracizing them for being overweight isn't illegal, but it's cruel and inhuman, just the way Mr. Mackey likes things to be.

  • bekiagain

    what, did they have a corporate brainstorm and ask “okay guys, the new fiscal year is upon us. what's the quickest way for us to get sued for discrimination and lose all credibility as an employer?”

  • baseter

    I disagree with these negative acts. It is like you say: “You are fat, go away”. No, The only way to motivate people to loose weight is to get them near skinny people and then to show them how good is to be healthier.

    • Jayme84

      Its easy to forget that most people who are naturally skinny do not eat healthy. As a matter of fact I had a skinny friend who tried really hard to push unhealthy food on me when I was losing weight b/c you could just tell it terrified her for me to be her “competition”. Um, honey, I already win b/c my personality doesn’t suck lol.

  • Carrie Jett

    Great article. It's outrageous to determine employee discounts based on body size and other supposed health screenings. It astounds me that a company that puts so much effort into marketing its image would do something so obviously stupid. Financially rewarding the “fit” employees just caters to the elite that already have the time and money to prepare organic foods and go to the gym. It's also inaccurate: Plenty of people with destructive lifestyles will easily fit within the guidlines, while others who put effort into their well-being yet don't “measure up” will be penalized. Bull sh*t!

  • http://ezhealthmanagement.com/ ezhealth

    This is a great article you can not judge a person based on size alone. Health is determined by physcial activity and a healthy nutritional diet. Also they should be offering discounts to the “unhealthy” people who can benefit from the discounts for them to use incentitives for them to start living a healthier life.

  • Ashleyjay

    Whole foods might pay one a “solid living wage” but for a person with a family or debts they have to pay off from putting themselves through school (or from previous health issues because they couldn't afford health insurance) they are barely getting by. Especially with the cost of living in CA. A lot of people working there can't afford to buy the organic “healthy” foods for every meal they are working, let alone make a delicious well balanced meal every night. They have to grab something on the go and it's usually cheap and void of nutrition. If they have families they usually have to have two jobs, where are they going to get the time to workout at the gym they have to pay for (because it's dark when they get home and not safe to walk or run alone at night) and cook healthy and well-balanced to shed some of those pounds to get a better discount on food they really can't afford to begin with. Give me a break Whole Foods (actually, give your employees a break). It's discrimination on so many levels.

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  • nstuck

    In addition to gym memberships and dietitians, Whole Foods could provide fresh produce to its employees as a benefit – think free CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) memberships – supporting healthy behavior and potentially lowering health care costs. The Cleveland Clinic with its Chief Wellness Officer is saving $5,000 – $10,000/year per patient due to programs such as this (Time Magazine, June 22, 2009). More correlations between improved eating and lower health care costs will provide further incentives for companies to put food at the heart of their health & wellness programs.

  • Brit

    Awww, the fat people are offended. I think it is a good idea.

  • suzjazz

    It's not just the fat people who are offended.

  • Owen

    “If the company wanted to create incentives that encourage healthy lifestyles, perhaps it could offer discounts at gyms and for other activities, create opportunities for employees to be active outside of work, offer free classes or seminars on how to lose weight or improve one’s diet, or even bring in a dietitian to sit down with each individual employee to help him or her set goals and create a plan of action to achieve his or her desired results. “

    While Whole Foods does not offer discounts at gyms for employees, it does offer free classes (in fact Whole Foods Team Members are paid to attend these mandatory sessions) on healthy eating. Each store has an In-Store Educator, whose function, among other responsibilities, is to promote healthful foods and lifestyles. Can we think of any other company that takes a salary out of its bottom-line to orient employees to the world of healthy eating? Furthermore, individual stores organize company hikes, thus creating “opportunities for employees to be healthy outside of work.” Finally, information throughout the store, including brochures and the new ANDI system, emphasize to customers and Team Members alike what is healthy and what is not.

    Ms. Smolak, I really enjoyed meeting you in the store the other day, but I would advise researching further WF's wide range of policies before latching onto one in a vacuum. There are problems with the Discount Incentive– for many of the reasons you state– but it is a program that operates in concert with a range of other initiatives.

    • Annabel Hartman

      Sure, they take great pains to emphasize to customers & Team Members alike what they SAY is healthy and what is not. Much of the information relayed in the 4 pillars and ANDI system is NOT supported by (as is necessary for scientific proof) a plethora of evidence-based data, collected from studies with sound methodologies. Plus, the ANDI system leaves out a number of essential nutrients?
      It is dishonest and frankly, bizarre, to purposefully teach around and at times (eg, see attitude towards fats) directly against current evidence-based nutrition science. There is plenty of good research out there advocating a mostly-plant diet, but the information relayed to unknowing Team Members and customers plies a whole bunch of other un-based claims on top of that. As a health researcher and educator, I was baffled when confronted with this information and looked into the “scientific advisory board” repeatedly referred to as an authority. It turns out to be just a few people, most of whom are primarily and actively involved in Veganism personally and professionally (the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is known for only promoting Vegan recommendations). Even without the other blatant falsehoods, Conflict of Interest is a pretty major red flag when reviewing a research methodology or practice for legitimacy.

      I am not sure why but there is obviously an agenda in Whole Foods to preach a Vegan lifestyle as the ONLY true path to a healthy lifestyle. I mean, c’mon, that “customized” eating plan for customers is so oddly biased it is almost offensive.

      Veganism can be a great option in pursuing a healthier diet and life- but people deserve to be treated with respect, and have the right to make their own decisions. Anything less is immoral. It is basic common courtesy to provide TRULY and REPEATEDLY evidence-based health education with which customers and Team Members can make educated life choices.

  • Owen

    “If the company wanted to create incentives that encourage healthy lifestyles, perhaps it could offer discounts at gyms and for other activities, create opportunities for employees to be active outside of work, offer free classes or seminars on how to lose weight or improve one’s diet, or even bring in a dietitian to sit down with each individual employee to help him or her set goals and create a plan of action to achieve his or her desired results. “

    While Whole Foods does not offer discounts at gyms for employees, it does offer free classes (in fact Whole Foods Team Members are paid to attend these mandatory sessions) on healthy eating. Each store has an In-Store Educator, whose function, among other responsibilities, is to promote healthful foods and lifestyles. Can we think of any other company that takes a salary out of its bottom-line to orient employees to the world of healthy eating? Furthermore, individual stores organize company hikes, thus creating “opportunities for employees to be healthy outside of work.” Finally, information throughout the store, including brochures and the new ANDI system, emphasize to customers and Team Members alike what is healthy and what is not.

    Ms. Smolak, I really enjoyed meeting you in the store the other day, but I would advise researching further WF's wide range of policies before latching onto one in a vacuum. There are problems with the Discount Incentive– for many of the reasons you state– but it is a program that operates in concert with a range of other initiatives.

  • Kim Fenske

    Summit County Government has followed Whole Foods, requiring county employees to achieve BMI 24.9; BP 120/80; LDL 140 in order to qualify for up to $500 in co-payment for health care costs.

    I ride my bicycle 16 miles a day to commute for work, about 2,400 miles a year. On my days off work, I hike at least 10 miles per week. This summer, I have already ascended 24 Fourteeners, hiking about 20 miles with vertical of 10,000 feet per week.

    My VO2 Max is in the superior range. However, like many Olympic medalists and other athletes, I am borderline or fail the faulty “health-based criteria” established by my employer for the wellness program award.

    A study of 250,000 patients by Mayo Clinic found that BMI is a poor predictor of health. An evaluation of more than 40,000 GM workers by Chang, et. al., found that health care costs to not begin to increase until BMI is over 27 or under 19. Evidence does not persuade my employer to end this discriminatory and irrational program.

  • Zodiac

    Um…has anyone actually looked at the requirements to receive the higher discounts? They are ludicrously easily to obtain. Whole foods isn’t setting the bar unattainably high or anything! To qualify for the Platinum (30% off) grade you just need to have a BMI of less than 24. As an example you could be 5’3″ and 135Lbs or 5’6″ and 148Lbs. Whole Foods isn’t demanding anorexia, just a little self restraint.
    As far as ‘discrimination’, they will probably get sued, sadly, but some out of joint fat employee who would rather take offense than take a walk.

  • m.long

    I’m glad I ran into this article. I am a larger, Hawaiian female, I work at Whole Foods and I don’t qualify to even take the BMI tests. I love to eat healthy, exercise 4 times a week and can most likely outrun (distance) most of the athletic people I work with. If you were to see me in person, you’d never guess just by looks. I hate the health screening they do. Even healthy people don’t do as well on the tests and they come back as frustrated as can be, wondering why someone slightly bigger than them is ‘healthier’. It then turns into a Judgement Festival. Everyone fasts the day before and the second they pass the test, they’re back to eating cookies, coffe and ice cream on every break. I don’t see it as encouraging everyone to be healthy, but more as a reward system for being skinny or small. You know I would love to buy salads everyday if I had a larger discount, but as for now, I’m too big to be rewarded. Stuff at Whole Foods is so jacked up in price it’s hard to get myself to be supportive of their produts. All I can find besides an $8 lb mediocre salad bar at Whole Foods is nothing but glorified junk food. It’s almost like I have to eat the food there and make sure everyone is aware of it so I can prove I eat healthy, but it’s too expensive. I guess I’m too poor and fat to be rewarded. Thanks for ‘team member happiness’ Whole Foods.

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  • Jared Pyle

    Simply put you dont want obese poeple working in a place that sells healthy foods. People stop crying about it and lose some weight its not that hard.