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The 'Healthy Bites' challenge: Little steps make a difference

Network - Winter 2013

By Mary Brolley

Rob Yates laughs when asked how he came to join MD Anderson’s “Healthy Bites” initiative.

He accepted one of the more difficult monthly challenges — drinking less alcohol for a month.

“Somebody had to do it. You might say I was volunteered,” jokes the physician assistant and supervisor of mid-level providers in the Department of Pain Medicine.

Like some people with demanding jobs, Yates had gotten into the habit of having an alcoholic drink or two after work to unwind. But he was open to making positive lifestyle changes and agreed to lessen his overall alcohol intake by taking this challenge.

Breaking behavior patterns

Yates has special motivation to pay attention to his health. A decade ago, he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Ever since, he’s tried to stay active and make smarter food choices.

To tackle the challenge, Yates started keeping a log of his consumption of alcohol. His goal was to reduce his drinks by one serving a week. He also paid attention to serving sizes and planned ahead for social engagements.

“I’d forecast the week,” he says. “Once I started logging and measuring it, it was easy to cut down.”

Adelina Espat, program manager in the Public Education Office, was part of a team that created the challenge because of concern about trends in obesity and its effects on health.

She and her colleagues knew that nutrition was one of the most popular topics for subscribers to their monthly Focused on Health newsletter.

“Obesity is a growing problem,” Espat says. “It’s a contributor to new cancer cases.”

She imagined a challenge that would fulfill two goals: to encourage the Focused on Health audience to make dietary changes to improve their health and, by attracting new subscribers, increase the reach of this important health message.

Growing awareness of how diet affects cancer

But making better food choices isn’t easy, Espat knows. To the many Americans who are overweight or obese, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight may seem daunting.

To create the challenges, Espat worked closely with Mary Ellen Herndon, employee wellness dietitian in the Division of Human Resources’ WorkLife and Wellness. They followed guidelines set by the American Institute for Cancer Research’s “Foods that fight cancer.”

The 12 challenges spurred participants to make simple choices and maintain them for one month — long enough, perhaps, to form a new habit.

January’s challenge was simple and straightforward: Eat breakfast every day. But it went beyond the cliché, offering workable and quick options for making the meal count.

Other challenges were to eat less processed meat, more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins, and dine out less.

Because consuming sugary drinks leads to weight gain, another challenge is to drink more water instead.

To test the challenges before the public launch, they decided to reach out to MD Anderson’s more than 19,000 employees.

“We’re a diverse population,” Herndon notes. “And it’s important to show that we practice what we preach.”

“So we sent out an email asking for participants. We needed 12 volunteers. Within three hours, we had more than 250 responses,” Herndon says. “We had to shut the site down.”

Still time to join

Network readers can take the challenge by signing up for the Focused on Health newsletter (see Healthy Bites in Resources). Once they do, they’ll receive emails and links to supporting materials directly to their inboxes.

They’ll also get new tools, recipes and tips to help them complete each month’s challenge. For more motivation, they can read and watch stories from people like Yates who’ve already taken one of the challenges.

Yates is happy that he accepted the challenge, and has maintained his awareness of his alcohol consumption.

“Once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient,” he says. “I’ll do anything to lessen the chances of having a recurrence.”

Grateful for the initiative’s success, Herndon and Espat are already planning the 2014 offerings, which may include an exercise component.

“Making better food choices can seem overwhelming. Making huge changes overnight can seem impossible,” Herndon says. “That’s why the challenges are simple and achievable.”

“Little changes over time can have big effects.”
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Network-Winter 2013

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