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Signposts on the way to a healthier lifestyle


MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif.—Health-conscious workers don't need to master the tricky skill of reading food labels in Mammoth Hospital's employee cafeteria. They just need to pay attention to the symbols.

A bright red stop sign means high-fat, calorie-laden food; a yellow triangle denotes a meal with two fatty elements, such as butter or whole milk; a green heart translates into completely heart-healthy fare.

The Mammoth Lakes, Calif., hospital added symbols next to items listed on its cafeteria menu about two years ago as part of its evolving employee wellness program, said Pam Mason, the hospital's registered dietician who helps create the menus and snack selections.

The symbols are "our way of saying (to employees) this is a healthy item" or "you may want to opt out of eating that," she said. "It gives them the freedom to make their own choices and be educated."

About 300 people are on Mammoth Hospital's staff in the small ski town in central California. Ms. Mason estimates the cafeteria feeds about half of the hospital's staff every day, many of whom are enrolled in the hospital's wellness and weight management program.

The offerings are inexpensive--about $3 a meal and $1 for a lunch salad--to encourage employees to eat there. On any given day, employees have their choice of a daily special, a healthy and balanced meal that features one starch, one protein and one vegetable. It also offers an assortment of sandwiches and wraps, salads and homemade soups.

The hospital's menu--also sporting the symbols--is available on its intranet.

Over just the past month, red stop signs have been disappearing from the hospital's menu as Ms. Mason has worked to phase out the cafeteria's offerings of fatty meats as well as full-fat mashed potatoes and gravy, for example.

Apparently, it's the employees who are driving this change.

"I get comments all the time. If there aren't enough heart-healthy items, I'll hear about it," she said.

Ms. Mason is also working to revamp the cafeteria offerings, replacing the higher-fat food with similar-tasting but low-fat versions. For example, she said, employees soon will see slices of vegetable pizza instead of the traditional pepperoni.

The cafeteria has also started using smaller plates for its entrees to keep portion sizes under control. That's been a bit tougher to swallow for employees, Ms. Mason said.

"Sometimes we get complaints, like, there's not enough food," she said. "But we're really watching serving sizes because too much of something might not be good."