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Wellness: America’s Commander-in-Chef Can Take Heat in Kitchen

Corporate Wellness Magazine

Michele Obama and Sam Kass at a health food demonstration

Nutritionists will be the first to say that healthy workers who eat the right foods are likely to increase their energy levels, improve their immune systems and perform better on the job.

Now think of the heat in the kitchen, then, that Sam Kass walks into five nights a week.

For close to a decade including the last six in the White House, he has withstood the pressure cooker and all that goes into preparing meals for America’s No. 1 public servant and his family. Kass is not only a longtime friend of President Barack Obama, but a personal chef for the first family as well, which makes cooking for the boss each night more than a special occasion.

“We can handle some heat,” said Kass, referring to a little spice he cooks up to make a “good chicken wing” and, for that matter, the weight of planning fare within the guidelines of “MyPlate,” Michele Obama’s nutritional program designed to remind Americans of the advantages to building meals that consist of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. Kass, who recently stepped down from his role as the point person and public face for “Let’s Move,” the first lady’s fitness campaign which involves some 70 private sponsors and a dozen federal agencies, said in an exclusive interview with Corporate Wellness Magazine that he recognizes managing work, life, and family is an everyday struggle for countless employees across the United States, and that the president is no different.

“Over the last 30 years, people’s lives have changed such that exercise is less frequent, average portion sizes are larger, fast-food consumption is much greater and kids are targets for unhealthy food advertisements,” he said. “Employees who better understand the importance of physical activity and nutrition, who can pass that information along to their children, will serve as beneficial role models.”

Health Begins at Home

Considering his own frantic schedule as Mrs. Obama’s top policy advisor on nutritional planning and commander in chef for her family five nights a week, Kass understands that wellness begins at home.

“Parents are kids’ first and best role models, and it is critical that parents model the behavior that we want to see in them,” said Kass, who noted that when the president is in town, dinner is a core family event. “By encouraging and engaging in more physical activity and nutritious eating, parents can help alter unhealthy habits.”

Kass said one of the best ways to encourage kids to make healthy decisions is to get them involved and make the process fun. When he was not grilling steaks or fish for the Obamas or tending to corn or cucumbers in the first major vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt, Kass was busy advocating programs and legislation to fight childhood obesity.

“Childhood obesity doesn’t have one single cause,” he said. “What we have learned in the past few years is that no individual can solve this problem alone. It will take entire communities facing a multitude of challenges head on, and working together to end the epidemic. We can do this, but we can’t afford to wait any longer. The time for collective action is now.”

Kass said that obesity directly leads to heart disease, asthma, sleep apnea, social and stigmas as well as diabetes, of which one-third of all children born today will develop in their lifetime. Couple that statistic with a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that predicts 42 percent of Americans will be obese by 2030. This means a heavy toll on healthcare costs related to obesity, the sum of which is expected to rise by $550 billion in the next two decades.

Wellness: Heavy on National Consciousness

Aside from the financial burdens, obesity can place tremendous demands on the health of the nation’s economy. Research points out that obese men and women are likely to take more sick days from work and perform at lower levels when on the job than that of their healthy colleagues, costing employers up to S6.4 billion in lost productivity. Enter employee wellness programs, which, says Kass, can go a long way toward feeding attitudes about fitness and nutrition both at home and at work.

“Companies are beginning to understand that investing in employee health will ultimately improve their bottom lines,” he said. “We encourage more employers to take the health of their employees seriously. We know that employees spend the bulk of their days at the workplace and providing corporate wellness programs are a great way to engage not only employees, but also their families.”

Kass said some corporate wellness programs are already paying great dividends in terms of reducing obesity and promoting active and healthy lifestyles, but their potential has yet to be fully realized.

“By helping employees make better choices and by engaging their families, corporate wellness can support kids and the entire family structure,” he said. “We do know that one size does not fit all when it comes to employee wellness. A work environment that supports and encourages a healthy lifestyle through broad-based messaging and family engagement and one that offers convenient and easily accessible wellness activities helps change and foster healthy habits.”

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