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Grocery store dietitians help customers with lifestyle changes

Sunday, October 7, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:29 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 8, 2012
Hy-Vee dietitians assist customers shop for healthy food based on their individual needs.

COLUMBIA — Jean Morrow wasn’t expecting to lose 27 pounds when she started consulting a dietitian.

After retiring from nursing for what she described as "health reasons," Morrow took a friend's advice to get nutritional counseling. Online, Morrow found Jessica Myers, a dietitian at Columbia’s West Broadway Hy-Vee.

Questions dietitians hear most

 Jessica Myers, dietitian at Hy-Vee

1. “I was recently told I need to go gluten-free and I don’t know what to look for.”

Gluten-free means avoiding anything with wheat, rye and barley. So on first glance that means no breads, pastas, cookies, etc. However, we have a whole section with products that are gluten-free. It is important to become an expert label reader to identify if foods are gluten-free. Many are actually labeled “gluten-free” while others aren’t, so when in doubt, avoid that food until you are able to determine if it is.

2. “I am on the go all the time and I am trying to lose weight. What are some quick and easy things I can eat?”

Look for 100 calorie packs of different foods and always remember portion control. Other foods that are great are fresh fruits and cut-up vegetables, cheese sticks, nuts and granola bars.

3. “What is the difference between organic and natural foods?”

 Organic is a term that is regulated by the government while anyone can use the term natural. Organic means the foods is free from byproducts, added hormones and pesticides.

5. “How can I lower my cholesterol?”

Choose foods low in saturated fat and total fat. Enjoy heart-healthy fats in moderation such as those found in nuts, salmon and flax seed. It is also important to choose whole grain foods and make exercise an important part of your routine.


Victoria Yates, nutritional health coach, Natural Grocers

1. “Is vegetarianism the best/most healthy way to eat?”
2. “What can I do to sleep better?”
3. “What are the best foods to eat for breakfast”
4. “How can I have more energy?”

Yates said that because her answers are “very individual based,” she couldn't provide sample answers for a news story. However, she said, “balancing meals will generally take care of many issues. Making sure you have adequate amounts of protein, fats and carbs in your diet and eating balanced meals of whole foods.”



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Morrow said she'd looked at other approaches but realized she wasn't as focused on weight loss as she was on lifestyle changes. “Some programs are very intense on changing everything," she said. "But Jessica looks at what is working in your life and nudging you along for changes you can make, and so you will stick with them longer.”

Hy-Vee is just one grocery store chain meeting consumer demand for health information. Nearly all of its 236 stores now have a dietitian on staff.

Annette Maggi, director of the supermarket subgroup of the Food and Culinary Professionals, noted that the number of people who visit grocery stores a week is "really phenomenal" and provides retailers with a unique opportunity to educate people on nutrition. That's driving a trend: More than 400 retail dietitians are now members of the supermarket subgroup.

The report "Nutrition and You: Trends 2011" by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Association, states that 4 percent of people use grocery stores for their health information, and 1 percent use registered dietitians. Television remains the top source for nutrition information at 67 percent. 

“More grocery store chains are making a push to hire dietitians since customers are demanding products with different nutritional aspects,” said Myers, who is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Missouri Dietetic Association and the Central Missouri Dietetic Association. “Grocery stores want to have someone available to help the customer, so whether the dietitian is active on a store level or in a more corporate level, their value is finally being realized in more chains.”

Ann Cohen, extension associate professor and state nutrition specialist for the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at MU, remembers attending a presentation by representatives from grocery stores like Wegmans, which is based in the Northeast, at the American Dietetic Association national conference about 12 years ago. 

“It was a new concept back then,” Cohen said. “(Wegmans and several other chains)  served as a model for stores like Hy-Vee who now see the value in having somebody in the store that is helping people at the point of purchase to give them advice.”

Natural Grocers, which has a store at 400 N. Stadium Blvd., has also recognized the value of having someone in the store who can provide nutritional help to customers. The company has hired nutritional health coaches for each of its stores.

Victoria Yates is the nutritional health coach for the Columbia store. She provides one-on-one nutritional coaching focused on using nutrition to reach optimal health, meaning health goals that each person can realistically achieve to feel his or her best. “Healthy and Delicious” classes are based on a variety of topics, such as “Nutrition and Brain Health” and “Curbing Cravings.”

Yates said her role is different from that of a grocery store dietitian.

“I educate customers on how to use nutrition for optimal gene expression, how to use nutrition to regulate hormonal responses," she said via email. "My focus is on natural/whole foods and how to find a plan that fits the person individually."

That's because we're not all the same, she said. “We are genetically different, therefore, 'cookie cutter' diet information isn’t always best.”

Supermarket sweep

Through its dietitians, Hy-Vee offers personal shopping assistance, monthly newsletters and Fast, Fit, Food! — a five-day meal pick-up program based on a set-calorie meal plan. But of the dietitian services the store offers, its most popular is the free supermarket tour.

That might seem like an unnecessary service, but Myers said a dietitian-led tour can bring new knowledge about how to read labels and NuVal System, which scores food from 1-100, with higher numbers being more nutritious. 

“They will know what they need to be looking for, what they need to shop for and then they can take that home and apply it when they make the meals and go about their day,” she said.

During tours, Myers starts out in the produce section, pointing out fruits and vegetables that are in season and advising people to look to frozen produce for those that are out of season. She also likes to highlight the exotic fruits — like carambola, "the star fruit" — especially when kids are on the tours.

She then makes a deliberately short trip through the bakery section, opting not to draw attention to the doughnuts and cookies on display.

As she makes her way around the store, Myers focuses on products for a healthy diet and offers preparation tips. For instance, she recommends buying salt-free canned vegetables. However, if people can’t afford to do that, she suggests draining and rinsing regular vegetables to reduce the salt content. 

Another helpful tool for shoppers to make healthy choices are Myers’ “My Picks” tabs on shelves around the store. She has about 20 in place now to aid shoppers as they make choices. Myers makes her decisions based on her knowledge as a dietitian and her goal of reaching a wide variety of customers.

Other Hy-Vee employees don’t always agree with her choices, however.

“They like to move them around to mess with me,” Myers said as she removed a tab near the Oreo cookies and placed it back in its correct location near the nutritional biscuits.

Some bottom-line benefits

Jo Britt-Rankin, associate dean, associate professor and state specialist for the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at MU, says MU Extension has been using in-store nutrition education for years because people are more likely to  buy healthy foods immediately after receiving information. She and her colleagues recently completed a pilot study to look at the influence of grocery store tours and monetary incentives on nutrition education.

"We found that people who received a grocery store tour in addition to nutrition education are more likely to plan meals in advance for their family," Britt-Rankin said.

Stores benefit in sales, and Myers is aware of that.

“I feel like it is remarkably hard as a dietitian to help sales without helping customers, which is definitely a plus,” she said.

Morrow gets her diet advice at Hy-Vee, but she doesn’t feel pressured to buy her groceries there. The service helps her find what she might want or need, "and if you can purchase your groceries there that’s great, but that’s not the focus,” she said.

She said she still shops at competitors for budget reasons.

Sara Bartow-Fuller, the health market manager for Myers’ Hy-Vee location, says health food sales are rising after falling for a brief time.

“I think mainly the economy was the contributing factor to the slight decrease, and people didn’t have the extra money to spend," she said. 

Myers said she tries to address the economic side of grocery shopping because of the state of the economy. She highlights budget-friendly items during her tours, like purchasing dry beans instead of cans since you can soak them and get more for your money. Or, only spring for organic when you eat the skin of the fruit or vegetable. 

At Family Nutrition Education Programs at MU Extension, Britt-Rankin said staff has seen a strong desire in parents to feed their kids healthier foods. 

"This desire can be so strong that they will prepare healthy food for their children even if there is not adequate food to feed themselves," Britt-Rankin said. 

Motivational occupation 

Myers believes the biggest problem with health in Columbia is the lack of education about nutrition. 

"People don’t know what they should be doing, so they just go, 'Oh, I’m just gonna keep doing the same thing and not address it,''' Myers said. "I think getting the information out there that there are dietitians here to help and we can direct you to what you need to be doing is really important."

Myers said she has about 20-50 interactions a week with customers and clients on the floor and in meetings. She chose the grocery store setting, instead of a hospital, because it was her favorite rotation in college.

“From my experiences in the hospital, I didn’t feel like I ever made much of an impact since most patients were sick and their last priority was often nutrition,” Myers said. “At Hy-Vee, people come see me because they want to, not because their doctor made them, which greatly impacts their motivation.”

That was the case for Morrow, who came in to make some lifestyle changes. She has accomplished that, lost 27 pounds and now has set a goal of losing another 20 by the end of the year. 

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.


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