The Skinny On Whole Foods’ Anti-Fat Policy

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?

Carly has a BA from Stanford and recently finished her MBA in sustainable management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Her interests revolve around sustainable food production, sports, renewable energy, finance, and sustainable business consulting. She lives in Oakland where she spends her spare time cycling, home brewing, gardening, cooking, and surfing (when she can make it over the bridge).