Whole Foods Opens Its First Wellness Club

"If you know what's good for you ... " is a phrase that's fraught with threat. It implies that even if we do know what's good for us, our actions suggest otherwise and may carry dire consequences. But even if we do know, deep down, what's good for us, we often don't know how to achieve it.

I'm not talking metaphysics here. I'm talking kale, and the new prototype Wellness Club that Whole Foods is opening in Dedham, Mass., this morning with the intention of not only showing and telling us what's good for us but also how to prepare it.

A few years ago, kale was nothing more than a crossword-puzzle word to many of us. Then we began to hear how healthy this descendant of the wild cabbage -- brought to Europe from Asia Minor by Celtic wanderers in the 6th Century B.C. -- was for us.

The big question, as it is with so many healthy foods that don't come in the cans and frozen packages that many of us grew up with, was "what do you do with it?" There wasn't much of a trick to opening a can of Le Sueur Sweet peas and dumping them into a saucepan, or reading the instructions on a package of Bird's Eye Cut Green Beans.



The Whole Foods Wellness Club, on the other hand, will provide answers to searing questions like exactly how to sear an Ahi tuna. Or pronounce "Ahi."

"As at a gym, club members check in at a front desk, but in this case it's steps from the salad bar, near the fish," writes Kathleen Pierce in the Boston Globe. Once inside, members can use the reference library, take a lifestyle evaluation, or "learn how to prepare a dish -- such as mango quinoa porridge -- from a chef in a sleek kitchen, and then head out into the store to find, and buy, the ingredients."

"The mission of the Wellness Club is to provide an inviting environment where members are empowered to make educated and positive lifestyle choices that promote their long-term health and well-being through coaching, delicious food and a supportive community," according to a Whole Foods blog post. "It will feature courses and lectures developed by medical doctors, inspirational and informative skill-building classes, supper clubs and special events, coaching and support."

Members get a 10% discount "when they shop for healthy foods." But, as Pierce points out, "access to that empowerment comes at a price: It costs $199 to become a member of the Wellness Club, and monthly dues are $45."

The upscale grocer intends to open four other Wellness Clubs before the end of the year -- in New York; Chicago; Oakland, Calif.; and Princeton, N.J. -- "and if the prototypes do well, we would open more in 2012 as part of a growth initiative," John Mackey, chairman and co-CEO, told analysts during a conference call in February. "Our purpose would be to educate people how to eat better to achieve the highest degree of their health potential," Mackey explained and Supermarket News' Elliot Zwiebach reports.

Products that meet the club's "code of health" carry a Wellness Club seal of approval.

"A lot of people get overwhelmed when trying to initiate a lifestyle change,'' Heidi Feinstein, a Boston nutritionist and holistic therapist tells Pierce. "They can purchase a lot of stuff that they don't know how to use, end up wasting it and don't succeed. It's nice to have a guide when introducing yourself to all the abundant ways to revitalize your life."

A blogger who calls himself Calorie Ken doesn't want to put a damper on the idea or be seen as "Nelly Negative," but he gets the feeling from Pierce's story that Whole Foods is overemphasizing what people eat at the expense of how much they eat. He suggests that Whole Foods and other retailers "teach us how to eat better and help us have a good time doing it, but build the effort on a foundation of portion control and calorie awareness."

Calorie Ken also suggests that it would be nice to have similar Wellness Clubs in lower-income places that really need them. "Perhaps they should've chosen to do it in Mississippi, the fattest state in America," he writes. "Oh wait! There's no Whole Foods in all of Mississippi!"

It's all about achieving that elusive "balance," of course -- a topic gracefully tackled by Katherine Rosman in her Family Finances column in the Wall Street Journalthis morning. Invited cross-country to San Diego to moderate a panel about the benefits of financial planning at a convention of 2,500 female bloggers, Rosman decided to combine the engagement with some interviews, meaning that she'd be away from her husband and two young children for a longer-than-usual six days.

"If you can judge by the absolute swarm of marketers who had descended upon San Diego to try to get these bloggers to sample their products, these women have real influence,' she writes. "Yet almost every woman I met or listened to at the conference revealed a continual inner struggle between a desire to be fully engaged in family life and professional ambition."

But "balance is almost an impossible ideal ...," she concludes, "even as we still aspire to it."

It makes eating well, in the right proportions, seem comparatively attainable -- or, at least, a good place to start. If you know what's good for you.

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