Critical mass Featured

10:05am EDT July 22, 2002

Being overweight is one of the most common health problems in America. With its associated costs in health care, productivity loss and absences, creating a voluntary employee weight-loss program might seem logical. But sometimes there are limits to how much help an employer can lend.

"When I initially started my position, I had all the zest and enthusiasm to make these type of programs successful, and they all failed," says Frayne Rosenfield, administrator of corporate health promotions for Kaiser-Permanente California, and a 15-year veteran of the industry. "The environment of the worksite is not conducive to behavior modification on an ongoing basis."

Rosenfield tried everything from simple support groups to intensive weight-control programs lasting six to eight weeks. One of her key findings was that for group weight control to work, people need to share their experiences. People also had to be ready to commit to the program.

"At the worksite, you find people that are in various stages of readiness," notes Rosenfield. "The people also had to see each other outside of the meeting, and it was difficult for a supervisor and a subordinate to share their loss of control or the fact that sometimes they got so angry they resort to eating candy. There is a certain face we put on when we go to work. We don't let down to people we work with."

Another element contributing to the failure of the programs is the challenge of the vending machine. Row upon row of candy, chips and munchies-all packed with calories and fat.

"I wish more corporations and small businesses would take out the trash that's in the vending machines," says Michele Trankina, a San Antonio-based nutritional consultant and a professor at St. Mary's University.

Companies can help employees make good choices by providing lists of calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium of each of the foods available in the machine. This will help them base their decisions more on health rather than cost.

"People may be best served by having the employer provide information directing them on where they can find services and support outside the workplace," says Rosenfield. "The employer should create an environment that is conducive to change."

See if discounts can be secured at a restaurant with a salad bar to encourage healthy choices at lunch.

"Help them avoid fast-food places," says Trankina. "There should be a room with a microwave and a refrigerator, so employees can bring their own healthy food. Encourage them to eat breakfast. Otherwise, by the time they get to lunch, they're stark raving hungry and will overeat."

The majority of people will change their behaviors only when they're ready. Only 5 percent seek out group support.

"They all need information though," says Rosenfield. "They need to know how to get where they want to go. Put that information in pamphlets, posters or a bulletin board. If possible, allow them flex time so they can exercise at whatever point in the day [it] works best for them."

Basic starting points.

For people starting to change their eating habits, weight should not be the primary emphasis.

"People can put a lot of pressure on themselves to lose 10 pounds," says Trankina. "But if they are exercising, they aren't going to lose much weight. They may lose inches, because the body composition will change."

You should weigh yourself no more than once per week. It should be at the same time, on the same scale, while you're wearing the same amount of clothing.

"Don't weigh yourself two to three times a day to see what is happening," warns Trankina. "That tends to have a dropout effect."

If you need a starting point for a diet, start by watching fat intake. Rather than counting calories or doing other calculations, try to limit yourself to no more than 50 grams of fat per day.

"You don't want zero, because you'll be hungry all the time and your body needs some," says Trankina. "You might be amazed at the results" of limiting the fat intake.

The biggest meals of the day should be breakfast and lunch, not dinner. You should also not eat within two hours of going to bed because your body does not have enough time to metabolize the food. Food that isn't metabolized is quickly transferred to fat.

"People have to realize most diets don't work because people have certain ideals or expectations of them self," says Rosenfield. "Most have a history of former failed diets. Diets in and of themselves don't work. A balanced eating plan does because it's something you live with. You have to sell that idea to yourself."