Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 12, 2013

Incentives pay off in weight loss, better health


TRAVERSE CITY — Steve Hanna longed for years to lose weight, but he is admittedly a tightwad. Frugal, if you will.

So when Hanna found out that Grand Traverse County's insurance program would pay for a four-month weight loss program at the Munson Healthy Weight Center, he took them up on it.

That was a year ago. Now Hanna, 65, is 100 pounds lighter and all smiles in his county office, where he provides technical support to the county's 9-1-1 dispatchers.

"I felt so terrible. I was not a happy person," said Hanna, who now weighs about 200 pounds, give or take. "When you're that heavy, you don't love yourself, you don't love people, you don't love anything."

Hanna said that without the county's insurance support, the comprehensive program would have cost $435 plus the expense of the pre-packaged food that he ate for one month.

Hanna's story began 30 years ago, when he began working midnights as a 9-1-1 dispatcher. At that time, he weighed a trim 185 pounds. He was proud of his weight and fitness level. But his good habits gave way to late-night pizzas, fast food and eating out of boredom and stress.

Hanna jokes that he lost 1,000 pounds, but gained 1,100 over the years. By the time he signed on with the Weight Center, he was determined to make it work. After getting a doctor's approval, he began his stint at the center, which takes a customized approach with diet, exercise and behavioral counseling.

The center develops a detailed road map for each client. For Hanna, it meant eating prepackaged food at prescribed times for a month. He gradually transitioned to preparing food himself.

Hanna was losing a pound every day, which was deemed too fast. He then slowed down to about two to three pounds a week.

"I never felt weak, nor did I feel hungry," Hanna said. "I couldn't believe it because I felt ravenous before."

There was no magic to the diet, other than balancing lean protein with carbohydrates, vegetables and fresh fruit, he said.

The program benefits county employees, but it also benefits Grand Traverse County, which doesn't have to ante up money for doctor visits and supplies that normally go hand and hand with obesity, said Jennifer Seman, the county's human resources director

"As far as paying for insurance, in the long run, we definitely come out ahead," she said. "We don't have to pay for those long-term diseases."

Patrick Friedli, director of the center, said the program is available to anyone — not just for those covered by health insurance. Clients can go all out, and use all the services if they'd like, or pick and choose from the menu of offerings.

Friedli said $435 sounds expensive, but that's $3 a day — the price of a fast food burger.

"It's still a chunk of money if insurance doesn't cover it," he said.

Friedli said insurance companies are beginning to make a difference in helping employees get healthier. As a physician, he is seeing employees from Team Elmer's who save on their health premiums by seeing a doctor every other year and hitting the mark on cholesterol, blood pressure and body mass index.

"It's kind of an uphill battle with our guys, but they're willing and able," joked Tonja Wildfong, Team Elmer's marketing director.

Employees who meet four of five health criteria get their core insurance for free. The results have been positive, Wildfong said.

"Our on-site wellness coordinator told us that most Americans gain five to seven pounds a year," Wildfong said. "When we implemented the wellness program, we stopped the curve and the weight gain plateaued. She told us, we're bending the trend."

Friedli said that the Munson program is effective because it not only addresses what participants put in their mouths, but why.

"Each person has a different story on why they gained weight," Friedli said. "Each person has different things that are going on medically. It's not a cookie cutter program. We design it in a way so they can commit to the lifestyle. They can live with it forever. And that is the key."

Friedli said that the food manufacturing business hasn't helped obesity levels. Two out of three Americans are either obese or overweight, in part, because of sneaky calories.

"The food manufacturing business is extremely sharp," Friedli said. "It's a multi-billion dollar industry. There are food additives such as fructose corn syrup, relatively cheap and mass produced to stimulate our appetite center.

"No doubt about it. You eat these foods, and it makes you want more."

Hanna, who loves the outdoors, said he began riding his bike 15 miles to work. Winters used to be terrible for him, but now he has started snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. He enjoys seeing the turkeys and deer.

"I also sprang lose from my frugal pocketbook and bought a treadmill for the bad weather days," he said.

Previous symptoms of esophageal reflux disorder have disappeared. His wife is also skinnier. She lost weight to support him.

Hanna admits that maintaining his new weight is hard, but he tells himself two things when tempted: First, to wait 20 minutes. He almost always loses the urge.

"And I also tell myself, I'd rather feel great than eat something delicious," he said. "That really works."

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