Why Whole Foods Wellness Program Hurts Employees: An Open Letter

Dear Whole Foods (and CEO John Mackey),

I write as a former employee, a psychotherapist, and a woman who has been in recovery for disordered eating and distorted body image. I write because I’m no longer shopping in your stores and I want you to know why. I have had many reasons to stop in the past, but the convenience and good food kept me returning despite the ethical quandaries. But something I just learned about the Whole Foods wellness program for employees has finally pushed me over the edge.

Employee wellness programs can, at first glance, seem a no-brainer in creating a healthy work environment. But without carefully examining how you view and encourage “health” you are likely hurting people. I learned recently that you are using the BMI (Body Mass Index) as one of the measures of your employee’s health, and thereby a means of determining an employee’s discount at your stores. Here is why that is a harmful and potentially dangerous move:

  • BMI is not a scientifically valid measure of health. The BMI was developed in the late 19th century (yes, well over 100 years ago) by an astronomer and statistician. It was picked up in the 1940’s by Metropolitan Life Insurance to determine how much to charge for insurance. Metropolitan Life came up with “ideal weight” charts using no scientific evidence. Then, they lobbied doctors and the US Government pretty hard until voila! We are all slaves to this big, untested, arbitrary lie.*
  • Even if the BMI held some merit or if there was any measure of size that predicted health (which there is not), you are creating an environment in which fat-shaming is justified and some employees will act in unhealthy ways in order to achieve your standard for their health (such as restriction or dieting). In addition, higher BMI employees may find that no matter what they do they cannot lose enough weight because healthy weight loss is not possible for many people. This does not mean health is not possible. Learn more in this TED Talk: Why Your Brain Doesn’t Want You to Lose Weight by Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt

Whole Health

“Whole Health” sounds like a term you would trademark, doesn’t it? Maybe you already have, but by creating incentives based on the results from BMI’s and physicals, you are not actually considering your employee’s health in a “whole” way. Nutrition and exercise are just two components of health which also includes mental, emotional, and spiritual health. To thrive, we need to consider all of these components. So, maybe I focus all my energy into getting my BMI down. Then what? Well, between my work and my workout schedule it is impossible to also play piano or play Cards Against Humanity with my friends — things that increase my creativity and laughter which have been shown to have significant health benefits (see links above). Maybe the kind of diet required to conform means cutting out foods that bring me satisfaction. So what’s the point? I’m thin, but I’m not thriving. If the extra pounds mean the difference between living a life I love and living for an employee discount that is really more about you saving on health insurance premiums, I think I will take the weight. Because it is not sane. And it is not worth it. You are not even doing it for me.

A friend told me about a Whole Foods employee she knows who starves himself for a few weeks before his medical exam. Is that health? Is that what you want your employees to do? I am sure he is not the only one. You may argue that you do not have control over your employees behavior, but that is exactly my point. You don’t. And it is not your business. What is healthy for one person might not be healthy for another. So why try to pretend you can control this?

The “War on Obesity” in this country has been harmful. Instead of focusing on helping people move away from the shame, unrealistic body standards, and bad science which contribute to the problem in the first place, programs like yours actually employ shame to motivate fat people who are misunderstood as lazy, stupid, and gluttonous. Fat has become a scapegoat for all that is wrong with America, and it is still largely acceptable to make fun of fat people in TV sitcoms, but fat is not the enemy. The billions of dollars that Americans spend annually on diet programs (including those you encourage your employees to use), weight loss supplements, and surgeries are not evidence of a system that is working, nor is it evidence that those struggling to lose weight are just lazy. Actually, it just does not work.

Whole Picture

You do not know what is going on for your employee personally. And that is fine, because it is not your business. But here is a real-life example of the harm caused by another well-meaning employee wellness program at another large company. A young woman is thin and, you know, she could be the right weight for her body or not, but that doesn’t matter. Her envious and unaware co-workers always notice her eating just salad for lunch and tell her how “good” she is. Other co-workers keep pressuring her to join the department’s “fitness club”. Despite how hard it is for her to do, she refuses. They continue to harass her about this. They even imply she is not a team player or wrongly shunning fitness.

Guess what? She has an eating disorder. She is eating salad because that is her only meal for the day and even those calories are freaking her out. If only she could let herself have a slice of pizza! That would be healthy for her. She passes on the fitness club because she’s fighting exercise addiction and her eating disorder treatment program is helping her slowly but surely create healthier boundaries. She runs 6 days a week as it is. Her employer’s “wellness program” caused her to leave her job and find a healthier work environment.

When I worked at Whole Foods in my early 20’s, I was at the peak of my body hate and misguided attempts at weight loss. I worked in the Whole Body department where I was constantly restocking books like The Fat Flush Plan and The South Beach Diet. I stocked the shelves with supplements made for killing appetite. My BMI was probably close to “normal” most of the time. But what did that matter? I was not OK. And it was not just me. Many of us, eating disorder or not, are wrapped up in this mass lie about weight and its harm is just a matter of degree.

When I worked at Whole Foods, The store Assistant Team Leader was a large woman. Other co-workers ranged in size and body type. When I imagine what it would have been like to stand in line with my comrades at the end of our shifts to purchase groceries and my hard-working boss having to pay more than me or that guy in the seafood department paying less than me just because of a number on the scale, I feel sick to my stomach. Really, imagine the awkward, shameful discomfort of having this thing held over our heads. Imagine what it would be like to be reminded again and again of how inadequate, unworthy, and bad you are simply because of your weight. And that you should have to pay for it.

So you want your employees to be healthy? Here’s what you can do:

  • Reward your employees for getting regular check-ups (not for the results because that’s not your business).
  • Let your employees and their healthcare providers define what “health” is for them (not you or your insurance company).
  • Provide plenty of flexible PTO and paid family leave.
  • Offer unlimited psychotherapy sessions (regardless of diagnosis).
  • Provide steep discounts on produce for all employees (something like 50% off produce, 20% off all else).
  • Offer a discounted or free gym membership and discounts for other movement related activities like dance classes (but in no way make this mandatory or pressure your employees to join because you don’t know their situation).

I really want to believe Whole Foods is a principled company that is doing right by it’s people, the environment, and the world. Right now, I can not believe that. I hope someday to see Whole Foods become the progressive company it has always pretended to be. But in the meantime, while you are judging your employees based on BMI and encouraging them to go on bull sh*t diets, I’m out.

Sincerely,

Lily Sloane, LMFT

Additional Resources:

*Sobczak, C. (2014). Embody: Learning to love your unique body (and quiet that critical voice!) Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books, 46-47.

*Oliver, J. Eric (2006). Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic. New York: Oxford Press, 16-22.

For the Jezebel article and original letter from CEO John Mackey explaining this plan to Whole Foods employees, click here.

Also check out: Health at Every Size and The Body Positive for more information.

Lily Sloane

Lily Sloane

Lily Sloane is a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco. She sees her work as a dynamic interplay of science, art, and relationship, aimed at opening up wholeness and a sense of choice for her clients. She specializes in working with sensitive, creative young adults struggling with eating disorders, substance use/misuse, perfectionism, and relationships. (LMFT #84885)

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