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Employers cook up ways to boost healthy living

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To some corporate wellness experts, trying to create an aura of healthy living among employees without addressing what's dished out at the company's cafeteria during lunch hour is like trying to make a fruit salad without venturing into the produce section.

Workplace wellness programs emerged in the 1990s as a means to curb increasing health care spending. Today, an increasing number of companies are introducing programs and benefits such as corporate health clubs, walking programs and weight management coaching.

It wasn't long before cafeterias became ground zero for change, according to experts.

"For those (companies) with a cafeteria, naturally the discussion turned to: 'If we have this commitment to (wellness), let's look at the food choices we are offering,"' said Tom Lerche, a Chicago-based senior vp with Aon Consulting's health and benefits practice. "If the foods are unhealthy, it damages the mission."

Over the past several years, more and more companies--using a variety of strategies--have taken such strides as introducing salad bars, nixing the fried chicken and cheeseburger specials, adding nutritional labels and subsidizing healthier fare.

That change is never easy, says LuAnn Heinen, director of the Institute on the Costs and Health Effects of Obesity with the Washington-based National Business Group on Health.

"You get people who got angry, 'who are you to tell me how to eat?' was a common complaint," she said. "There are all sorts of things a company can expect when they begin restricting. (But) companies that have done things right have had tremendous success."

Michele Becker, a Somerset, N.J.-based vp with Aon Consulting's health and benefits practice, said there are typically two ways of changing a company's cafeteria to line it up with corporate wellness strategies.

First, a company can "tweak" their offerings, or introduce healthier fare but keep the unhealthy food available. Or, companies can opt to completely overhaul their menus and reintroduce healthy alternatives.

Both strategies, Ms. Becker said, have consequences. A slightly altered program has been one of the most popular choices among companies, albeit not the most successful, she said.

"So many (companies) are only tweaking, and when you only tweak you make it easier for people to continue down the (road) that they are on," she added.

Mr. Lerche said this is a typical cautionary move out of a company's human resources department, which often seeks to avoid backlash and controversy. "Eating habits are deeply ingrained among employees," he said.

A cafeteria extreme makeover, the other option, starts off rocky but sees better results in the end, according to Ms. Becker.

Companies can eventually lure employees into trying the healthier options if they lower the prices of food or provide employees with incentives.

The strategies companies have adopted vary greatly and some are still evolving (see related stories).

"Companies are all about offering (food) choices for employees," said Ms. Heinen.

"The ball's really rolling on this and the connection between the health care bill and...maintaining a healthy weight has been made," Ms. Heinen said.