I was recently invited to check out a preview of the Whole Foods Wellness Club that launched this month at the inaugural store in Dedham, MA. After browsing around on the Wellness Club website, I was excited to learn more and joined 10-15 other local food bloggers and some of my dietitian pals at the Whole Foods store a few weeks ago. I had shopped at this store before and was surprised to see a few of the center aisles were completely taken down and in their place was a gorgeous in-store facility complete with a sitting area, kitchen, and plenty of seats to listen to speakers or watch cooking demonstrations. It was so neat to be sitting in the Wellness Club as you saw shoppers walking right by on the other side of the glass walls!
The event was kicked off by Dr. Matthew Lederman, one of the three wellness experts on board. The other two are his wife, Alona Pulde MD, and registered dietitian Jeff Novick. Dr. Lederman presented a talk and power point about plant-strong diets. I think we were all expecting Whole Foods employees to tell us more about the Wellness Club, its classes, the day-to-day, activities, etc. since it was new to all of us, but we didn’t really get that, outside of a few brochures. Instead we got a food lecture. Dr. Lederman (as well as Pulde and Novick) advocate strongly for plant-based diets, as do I. But even I was turned off by his seemingly strict guidelines he presented (No oils! No added fats! Absolutely nothing processed!). It was a little unclear if these were the guidelines they will recommend to the Wellness Club participants, and I think they are. Next chef Ryan led a cooking demo and whipped up some hummus (that was screaming for some salt) and a raw “apple cake” type dessert.
And that was pretty much it.
Nobody really spoke to us about the actual Wellness Club program unless we asked specific questions, but we did learn that for an initiation fee of $199 and $45 a month, you can take unlimited classes (nutrition info, cooking) and for an additional fee you can sign up for nutrition counseling…with a health coach. Not a dietitian. Ouch.
I wanted to love this club and the concept and hoped I could jump on board and promote it to anyone in the area I know, but I just couldn’t. Here are some thorns in my side about the Whole Foods Wellness Club:
The price! That’s about as much per month as people in the suburbs are paying for a gym membership. You’d have to go to every single class offered (they’re offered daily) to make it worth your money, but I know few people who have time for that. Not to mention counseling sessions cost extra. Sure you get 10% discount on Wellness Club approved foods, but that doesn’t really make a dent in a typical pricey Whole Foods grocery bill.
And as I mentioned, that counseling is done with a health counselor, not a dietitian. So buyer beware. I’m really surprised by this considering one of the wellness experts is a dietitian himself.
Before I visited the Wellness Club, I had no idea they stressed a plant-strong (i.e. primarily vegan) diet. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was the basis of the program. Now imagine you’re a middle aged woman, for example, looking to improve her health, and decide to give the Whole Foods program a try to assist you. You show up on the first day and realize that fat free Greek yogurt, heart-healthy olive oil, and wild salmon you enjoy are pretty much discouraged (remember they advise against much added fat). This isn’t a wellness club, it’s a vegan diet plan with no added fat. And if it wasn’t an eating style you were on board with going in, you likely aren’t going to be very happy with the $199+ you just forked over.
Long time readers know that I follow a mostly vegan diet, so you may wonder why I find this so extreme when going plant-strong is something I wholeheartedly promote and adhere to myself. I just left feeling unsettled about the fact that this program is called a “Wellness Club,” in a grocery store that sells ALL foods, and that it’s really not clear until you enter that there are pretty specific food guidelines they want you to follow. I’m afraid it’s going to deter a lot of people from joining. This program has so much potential to educate people about reading labels, choosing whole, unprocessed foods, quick and easy cooking that is healthy and tastes great, and living a healthier lifestyle. And I have no doubt that will be part of the program, but with a strict vegan spin. The program may be attractive to those who already follow a similar diet, but then, this program wouldn’t be all that helpful to them. It just seems like they missed the target audience and are going to ostracize a lot of people. At this specific Whole Foods in Dedham, you’re in a suburb of Boston. You have busy families, parents who work, and people who are pinching their pennies. When I think of the families I know in the suburb of Boston where I grew up, I just don’t see many people shelling out an extra $700+ per year to go vegan. It’s wishful thinking, but I’m not really optimistic.
I think it’d benefit the Wellness Club to make it explicitly clear what their food guidelines and recommendations are, so people aren’t blind sighted when they show up. Plant-strong is a relatively new term, and it likely won’t dawn on people what this even means. I read through their website several times looking for more info about the diet, and came up pretty empty handed. Here is an example from the Wellness Club FAQ page:
Q: What is the Wellness Club?
A: The Whole Foods Market Wellness Club provides an inviting environment to empower members to make educated and positive lifestyle choices that promote their long-term health and wellbeing through coaching, delicious food and a supportive community.
The goal of the Whole Foods Market Wellness Club is to offer people the opportunity to take their well-being to the next level through education, cooking, coaching and a support structure aimed at ensuring long-term success.
The Whole Foods Market Wellness Club is based on a lifestyle program that provides a sustainable path to achieving optimum health by offering the how and the why. The comprehensive program includes a lifestyle evaluation, nutrition education, skill-building classes, a support community and discounts on select healthier foods.
Nowhere in there does it mention plant-strong.
What I would love to see is the Wellness Club offering classes on a variety of healthy eating topics without eschewing any specific category of food. My philosophy when working with clients is to meet them where they are, not make them overhaul their diet to fit a mold I have for them. If Whole Foods leaned more in this direction, I think we’d see success in a program that really does have a lot of potential.
The Wellness Club is new, and I think it’ll go through some growing pains as it sees what works and what doesn’t for the clients. I’d love to stop by six months from now to see where they are. My honest hope is that they’re successful and so are the paying clients. I look forward to seeing the outcomes.