Massachusetts Medical Society's Physician Focus

Doctor's Rx: Healthy Eating

PROGRAM HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Unhealthy weight in the U.S. is a national public health problem, with almost one in three adults and one in five children classified as obese, and nearly an equal number being overweight.

  • Diseases associated with obesity, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, are a growing burden on patients and our health care system.

  • Much of the burden of obesity and overweight comes from the lifestyles we lead – how active we are, and especially the foods we eat.

  • An innovative program in Worcester, Mass. is demonstrating that people can make the healthful choice in restaurants the easy choice.

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The medical conditions associated with obesity, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and osteoarthritis, are too costly and too common, and are brought on in large measure by the lifestyles we lead. How active we are, our use of substances such as tobacco and alcohol, and particularly the foods we eat – are major causes of obesity and overweight.

To tackle one aspect of the problem, three enterprising medical students at the University of Massachusetts Medical School – Mitchell Li, Matt DeWolf, and Adam Chin – have developed an innovative program in Worcester, Mass. focusing on the critical role that diet plays in health.

To bring their message beyond the city’s limits, Mitchell Li and Matt DeWolf appear on the January edition of Physician Focus with the Massachusetts Medical Society, to discuss the program, how it’s being received, and why they, as medical students, decided to embark on such an effort. Hosting this edition is B. Dale Magee, M.D., a physician in Shrewsbury, Mass., a past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, and former commissioner of public health for the city of Worcester.

The program is called WooFood (Woo coming from the City of Worcester), and is, as Li calls it, “a comprehensive certification program that makes the healthy choice the easy choice” for restaurant customers. “Everything we do is aimed at that,” he says.

According to Li, one of the underlying concepts of WooFood is that of “choice architecture,” that is, people make choices based on how those choices are presented to them. “The decisions people make at restaurants,” he states, “are based on how the wait staff and menus present the choices.”

The essential point is this: If the healthy choices are few or none, then people have less opportunity to eat healthy. Li says this concept becomes increasingly important as the incidence of dining out remains high – for some people as high as four to five times a week.

WooFood works with the owners and chefs of local restaurants to incorporate healthy choices for their customers – dinners with more vegetables, more whole grains, and less salt, sugar, and saturated fats.

DeWolf says the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “Owners and chefs have stepped up to the challenge,” he says, “as has the community, with a whole range of services that people are willing to offer to help the community become a healthier place.”

Restaurants have been the starting point for the program, but DeWolf indicates that WooFood may expand to include cafeterias and convenience stores. The students have even produced an online course, to share their ideas with others, and they hope their efforts can expand to other communities as well.

While WooFood has achieved success, one of the most intriguing questions about the program points to its founders: Why did medical students, whose journey through medical school is tough enough, take this initiative? The answer may in part lie in an emerging direction in health care.

With more and more people recognizing that there’s a lot more to health that health care, DeWolf says “There’s a culture brewing with medical students. They see the problem of obesity and they want to do something about it, to actually change something, and medical schools are starting to shift their focus, with an emphasis on health and not on disease management.”

Both Li and DeWolf agree that the theme of their effort is based on the all-important concept of choice.

Li says that WooFood “wants to be in the background, making it easier to eat healthier, employing the psychology of choice, while maintaining the freedom of choice.”

And DeWolf hits at the heart of the issue: “While most people may see their physician once or twice a year, “the daily choices people are making have a huge influence on their health.”

Watch the accompanying program for the full discussion, including conversation about what people can do in restaurants to eat more healthy, portion control, the concept of “dinner for now, tomorrow’s chow,” more details on community reaction to the WooFood program, and how other communities can begin similar efforts. And for a perspective on a companion approach to improving your health and addressing the problems of overweight and obesity, view December’s Physician Focus program, Doctor’s Rx: Exercise at www.physicianfocus.org/exercise

Text:
MMS/Richard Gulla

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
Harvard School of Public Health, The Nutrition Source

Centers for Disease Control

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

WooFood

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"Doctor's Rx: Healthy Eating" PSA


From left, B. Dale Magee, M.D., Mitchell Li, Matthew DeWolf
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