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What does Vanderbilt Eat?

Posted by on Friday, March 4, 2011 in Features, March 2011.

By Wayne Wood

Some good news about Vanderbilt employees:

  • Most of us have breakfast most days.
  • We’re pretty good about not snacking too much.
  • And while a lot of us weigh more than we should, we’re better off than the state and the country.

But then, there’s this: when it comes to eating five servings of fruits or vegetables a day, we’re worse than the U.S. average, and we’re worse than the Tennessee average. We’re terrible, in fact, with only 14 percent of us meeting that nutrition recommendation threshold. The United States and Tennessee averages are both around 23 percent.

Still: “If you look at most things, we’re better than the state and the U.S. as a whole,” said Lori Rolando, M.D., medical director of Health Plus, the Vanderbilt employee health and wellness program. “But there are still some things we can improve on.”

The data about the nutritional and other health habits of Vanderbilt employees are derived from eight years of annual health risk assessments collected by Health Plus.

“What the data illustrate are that a large part [of Vanderbilt] is already doing the recommended things,” Rolando said.

Some examples:

  • Percent who eat breakfast every day or most days: 76
  • Percent who report eating only or mostly low-fat foods: 59
  • Percent who report eating only or mostly whole grains: 60
  • Percent who say they snack seldom or only a few times a week: 74
  • Percent who say they never add salt to food: 49 (only 12 percent of us use salt every meal).
The seasonal weekly farmers’ market is a great source of fresh fruits and vegetables, and this year will also be at One Hundred Oaks.

(Mostly) moving in the right direction

And, Rolando notes, the data also show mostly good trends over the eight years of the Health Plus health risk assessments, both in nutrition and in other health behavior categories.

Exercise: In 2003, 73 percent of us at Vanderbilt exercised at least one day a week. Last year, that was up to 82 percent.

Smoking: In 2003, just under 12 percent of Vanderbilt employees smoked; in 2010 that figure had fallen to just below 8 percent. (For comparison, the national figure in 2009 was 18 percent and the Tennessee figure was 22 percent. Vanderbilt is MUCH better than the country and state on the rate of lighting up.)

Obesity or being overweight: The rate of overweight or obese Vanderbilt employees has slightly increased over the past eight years, from 55 percent to 56 percent. But Rolando points out that this represents relative stability as the country and state’s percentages of people who are overweight or obese has risen much more quickly. In the same period of time, the United States rate grew from 60 percent to 64 percent, and Tennessee’s rate grew from 60 percent to 69 percent. “Our employee population being able to temper that increase and instead remain relatively stable is a significant first step in changing the trend to decrease the percentage in this category,” she said.

What could be better?

Rolando applauds the recent changes that Vanderbilt has made, including some of the actions of the Food Advisory Committee to bring healthier options to restaurants and vending machines (see story on page 3).

“It’s important to increase health options on campus and make them more affordable,” she said. For example, the weekly seasonal farmers’ market that operates on the hospital plaza will expand this spring to a second location at One Hundred Oaks, where it will serve both the Vanderbilt employees who work there, and the larger community as well.

Rolando said she would like the awareness of good nutrition to spread even to office treats and snacks at meetings.

“We encourage each other as individuals. Friends and co-workers influence each other. People eat whatever is brought, and we can bring low-fat options to meetings or celebrations to help support each other in making healthy choices.”

But healthy habits at work alone aren’t enough. “You can go home and undo all the good you do here,” she said. “The changes at work should ideally be part of an overall commitment to a healthy lifestyle.” In that way, healthy habits gained in the workplace can carry over to home, and help transform the health of an employee, and family, for the better.

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