Natural Foods Merchandiser
How to adopt an in-store healthy eating program

How to adopt an in-store healthy eating program

Natural food retailers across the country are adopting successful programs to help customers lose weight, including the Mediterranean diet, Rip Esselstyn's "The Engine 2 Diet," Joel Fuhrman's "Eat to live," and John McDougall's "The McDougall Program." See how stores such as Whole Foods Market, Hy-Vee, and H-E-B and RediClinic, are cashing in on this healthy retailing technique.

When Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey famously declared in 2009, “We sell a bunch of junk,” his statement galvanized the giant natural foods chain to reestablish itself as a center for health. The next year, in addition to adding a wellness-focused addendum to its mission statement, the Austin, Texas-based chain launched a healthy-eating campaign that included a wildly successful 28-day vegan diet challenge based on Rip Esselstyn’s book, The Engine 2 Diet (Wellness Central, 2009). At Whole Foods stores across the nation, more than 5,000 people signed up for the Engine 2 Challenge, eager to ditch animal products and refined oils and sugars from their diets in hopes of dropping pounds and improving overall health. Since its inception, the challenge continues to gain steam.  

“We’ve found that people are essentially starving for information about healthy eating, and they’re ready to make changes,” says Dani Little, Whole Foods’ national Engine 2 program director. “Throughout the challenge, we have weekly meet-ups where I pass out healthy recipes and samples and offer cooking demonstrations. The goal is to give people tools to instill healthy eating patterns throughout the year.”

The popularity of Engine 2, as well as of similar in-store healthy-eating initiatives hosted by other grocers, spotlights a can’t-miss opportunity for natural products retailers: to become a trusted resource in helping shoppers achieve their weight-loss goals. In addition to implementing diet plans, many retailers are inviting registered dietitians to hold weight-loss classes on-site. “I am thrilled that so many supermarkets are adding in-store RDs,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, author of Read It Before You Eat It (Plume, 2010). “Everything you need to lose weight and stay healthy is on those shelves.”

Woman stocking shelfBut healthy-eating challenges and on-site RDs are just a few of many ways in which retailers can help their customers achieve their weight-management goals, says Keren Gilbert, RD, founder of, a website focused on mindful eating, fitness and healthy living. “As a retailer, you’re able to foster the sense of community that’s so integral to helping people make major lifestyle changes,” she says. “You’re also able to introduce products to consumers and hopefully encourage new shoppers to come to your store.”

Even though mainstream grocers such as West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee and San Antonio, Texas-based H-E-B have stepped up efforts to provide weight-loss assistance to consumers, natural products stores should have a leg up on the conventional competition. “Naturals retailers are already considered centers for health.” Gilbert says. “Now the opportunity lies in promoting this idea even further with a structured approach.”

Implementing an established eating plan

One of the easiest ways for natural products retailers to institute a healthy-eating program or challenge is to adopt an already-established, well-researched diet, Gilbert says. This way, the guidelines and foods that support the program are already outlined, and you don’t necessarily need an on-site dietitian to implement the plan.

Instead, Gilbert suggests calling out approved foods with shelf talkers, promoting new products and sharing recipes at weekly in-store meetings, and even initiating a monthly supper club in which participants create meals from program-approved foods. She recommends one of the following four plans as a good place to start, but advises listening to your shoppers’ needs to find a regimen that supports their goals.

The Engine 2 Diet

What it is: This 28-day plant-based diet plan devised by Retailer talking about healthy eatingEsselstyn, a firefighter and former professional triathlete, suggests vegan versions of tacos, hamburgers, pizza and other favorites. Some minimally processed foods are permitted, including tofu, seitan, soy yogurt, veggie burgers and whole-grain crackers and pastas. The diet is low in fat and salt and free of refined sugar, and it puts no caloric limit on fruit, vegetable or whole-grains consumption. Esselstyn’s book, The Engine 2 Diet, outlines “approved” products, making it easy for retailers to promote these foods as “Engine 2 friendly” on store shelves.

Who it’s for: Shoppers who want to eat better but may not be ready to trade meatloaf and pizza for quinoa and carrots

Eat to Live

What it is: Joel Fuhrman, MD, defines his Eat to Live plan with a straightforward formula: H=N/C. That is, “health is predicted by your nutrient intake divided by your intake of calories,” he writes in Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss (Brown, 2003). Dieters stave off hunger cravings throughout the six-week vegan plan by eating nutrient-rich, low-calorie foods such as dark, leafy greens; beans; legumes and other non-starchy vegetables. Eat to Live does place limits on starchy veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, avocados, tofu and flaxseeds.

Who it’s for: Already-healthy eaters ready to follow a strict, plant-based plan in order to jump-start weight loss or improve overall health

The McDougall Program

What it is: Founded by John McDougall, MD, this plan is based on the belief that individuals can prevent disease by eating an unprocessed, low-fat diet. The strict, vegetarian meal plan eliminates nearly all animal products, as well as peanut butter, nuts, olives and shellfish. Fats, oils and refined flour products are also restricted. Dieters plan meals using whole grains, squashes, root vegetables, beans, leafy greens and some fruits. Most approved foods can be consumed in unlimited portions.

Who it’s for: Eaters who already enjoy a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and aren’t interested in counting calories

Mediterranean diet

What it is: Rather than a theory or strict plan, the Mediterranean diet is traced back to the observations of Ancel Keys, an American scientist who studied diet’s influence on health and in 1945 began documenting foods common among Mediterranean cuisines. Several books detail aspects of the Mediterranean-food lifestyle, but most can be summed up as emphasizing seafood and whole foods (especially fruits and vegetables) and using olive oil in place of butter. Dairy and meat are consumed infrequently.

Who it’s for: Shoppers looking for diet flexibility who may be unaccustomed to eating whole foods and want to slowly introduce them into their diet

How to learn from the big guys

Along with adopting a specific weight-loss-promoting diet, natural products retailers can take further steps to create more robust healthy-eating initiatives. Several conventional grocers and large natural products chains have done just this. Here’s a look at some successful strategies that small, independent naturals stores may consider emulating.

Hy-Vee brings in-store weight loss to the Midwest

At the Hy-Vee store in Albert Lea, Minn., Amy Pleimling, RD, teaches a non-diet approach to weight loss called Healthy for Life. Her 14-week, $85 course mixes classroom education, cooking demonstrations, one-on-one consultations and store-floor tours. 

Pleimling says she now prefers teaching in a grocery store over a traditional classroom setting. “It’s interactive, practical and so beneficial to comb the store aisles [with participants],” she says.

Throughout the 14 weeks, students get three hours of education on the store floor. “During each visit to the aisles, we evaluate what’s healthy,” Pleimling says. “We do a lot of tasting, much of it on impulse. We’ll usually pick two or three produce items the group hasn’t tried, maybe jicama or mango. [Students] are always Whole foods employeeso willing to try new products.”

The focus throughout the course is on making small, gradual dietary changes. “It might be a person just beginning his or her weight-loss journey or someone who has a spouse [who needs to lose weight],” Pleimling says. “Whatever the case, we are always setting realistic goals.” Still, to help create an atmosphere of accountability and monitor individual progress, Pleimling requires students to participate in weekly weigh-ins.

Pleimling says her program always reaches its 26-person capacity, which translates to 26 shoppers filling their carts after each class. “Sometimes I give out coupons or tell them about value items,” she says. “Then they tell their friends about the store.”

Hy-Vee also operates a weight-loss program called Begin in some of its 220 stores. This 10-week course is run by registered dietitians who help participants incorporate healthy foods and regular exercise into their lifestyles.

H-E-B partners with RediClinic for 'gain health' program

In May, Houston-based RediClinic, which resides in 29 H-E-B grocery stores throughout Texas, launched its Weigh Forward weight-loss initiative. The 10-week, $499 program combines behavior modification, physical activity and nutrition education. The classes largely attract women ages 25 to 54. “These women are usually pressed for time and often have more than 5 pounds to lose,” says RediClinic CEO Web Golinkin.

Unlike many other weight-loss programs, Weigh Forward is run by nurse practitioners and physician assistants and overseen by local medical doctors. “Our program is different in that it’s medically supervised,” Golinkin says. “This means we can handle people with weight-related medical issues like diabetes.” In addition, the clinicians can monitor any health concerns and medications and prescribe drugs.

Weigh Forward focuses on implementing lifestyle changes rather than replacing meals and counting calories. “History shows us that when people lose weight via quick fixes and don’t learn anything from the process, they gain it back,” Golinkin says. “We are trying something different to help people lose weight and keep it off.”

The first step is a medical evaluation that includes cholesterol and thyroid checks, a blood workup and an evaluation of biometrics such as body mass index. These are then monitored weekly to assess not only weight loss but “health gain,” Golinkin says.

After each weekly visit, participants leave the clinic with a grocery list and meal plan and sometimes coupons for recommended items. With these in hand, they'll often go shopping right away, Golinkin says. Whether the students are toured through the store aisles depends on each teacher.

So far, the new program is performing well. “We’re meeting our financial projections and the participants are losing weight and gaining health,” Golinkin says. Based on Weigh Forward’s success, Golinkin sees plenty of benefits for retailers that host in-store weight-loss programs. “Consumers might come to trust your store more,” he says. “They will certainly shop with you more often, and we all know that customers usually buy more than they intend to.” Keep in mind that these extra purchases can include higher-priced personal care products and dietary supplements.

Whole Foods Market wants health to start in-store

Whole Foods Market’s weight-loss programs and support vary from store to store, but they’re all part of the company’s Health Starts Here initiative. Some of its programs include 28-day challenges based on popular diet books such as Esselstyn's The Engine 2 Diet and The China Study (BenBella Books, 2004) by T. Colin Campbell, PhD. Participants sign up and pay a fee for these challenges, which include weekly meetings and access to recipes and other support.

At the Whole Foods in Santa Rosa, Calif., Misty Humphrey, RD, creates her own weight-loss classes that include a one-hour personal consultation, classroom sessions with healthy food basics and lots of time on the store floor. “Most of the participants are new to natural foods and aren’t savvy about healthy eating,” she says. Her store tours also include a trip to the supplements aisle, where she teaches participants about nutrition basics such as essential fatty acids and multivitamins.

Once the class is complete, she offers participants shorter, one-on-one follow-up visits and keeps an open-door policy. “Sometimes past participants have just a quick question about a certain item,” she says. When enough people approach her with similar concerns, she will often offer a class on that subject.

Humphrey sees the classes as a win-win for customers and the store. As someone who has maintained an 85-pound weight loss, she knows that it takes much more than counting calories to keep pounds off.

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