H-E-B Slim Down Showdown Challenges Contestants to Peel Off the Pounds

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Contestants in HEB's Slim Down Showdown visit the Culinary Institute of America for healthy cooking advise. Photo by Tom Trevino.

By Melissa Ludwig

For San Antonio’s Dina Lopez, big portions are a family tradition.

When she first married her husband, she served him a plate piled with chicken legs and thighs, rice, beans and two tortillas. When he told her he couldn’t eat it all, she gave him the traditional mama bear retort – “Eat!”

“I was in the mentality that that’s what you need,” said Lopez, a 36-year-old mother of four.

Dina Lopez cooking

Alison Spangler and Dina Lopez of San Antonio, and Vanessa Moctezuma of Santa Rosa, get a healthy cooking lesson from H-E-B dietitians at the Culinary Institute of America.

In America, that mentality has sown an epidemic of obesity that threatens to shorten the lifespan of children and strain a healthcare system already sweating under the burden of an aging populace, Medicaid cuts and nursing shortages. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 36 percent of U.S. adults are now obese; more disturbing, 17 percent of children are obese, a figure that has tripled since 1980.

Lopez and her family are among those Americans teetering on the edge of serious health consequences.

At 5’2 and 257 pounds, Lopez has high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Her 11-year-old daughter weighs nearly 200 pounds, is pre-diabetic and has been bullied at school.

“My husband and I know that things need to change, and they need to change now,” Lopez said.

H-E-B wants to help.

This past fall, the company launched “Healthy at H-E-B” initiative to inspire Texans to adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle through special offers on healthy food, fitness groups, events and competitions.

A signature piece of the initiative is the Slim Down Showdown, a 16-week health contest that offers Texans a chance to win a $10,000 grand prize or a $5,000 “fan favorite” award. H-E-B started the contest with its own employees a couple of years ago and extended it to the community for the first time this year.

Lopez was chosen as one of 25 contestants from a pool of 550 applicants.

Portland contestant Nadia Rivas of Portland gets down at a Zumba class at Gold’s Gym.

Nadia Rivas of Portland gets down at a Gold’s Gym Zumba class.

Last week, the contest kicked off with a four-and-a-half day wellness seminar at the Hilton Palacio Del Rio with medical screenings by Methodist Healthcare, experts from Cooper Wellness in Dallas, Zumba classes at Gold’s Gym and a healthy cooking demonstration by H-E-B dietitians at the Culinary Institute of America.

Contestants returned home this week armed with meal plans, fitness goals and a membership to Gold’s Gym. Health coaches will call them weekly over the next four months to help them stay on track. Winners will be announced Oct. 7 at a Healthy at H-E-B “Taste of Health” food festival held in conjunction with Siclovia.

I have had the privilege of helping publicize the Slim Down Showdown on behalf of H-E-B, and getting to know each of the 25 contestants.

I admire their bravery.

This is not just a weight loss contest. A large part of the scoring rests in online community engagement. Contestants must blog regularly about their progress, garnering points for the number of likes, shares and comments. H-E-B hopes that by sharing their journey, the contestants will inspire others, acting as catalysts for change in their families and communities.

On the whole, these folks are not a bunch of showboats. They are teachers, mothers, fathers, and social workers who have agreed to open up a very personal struggle for the world to see.

It’s a big step for someone like Michael Mercado, who spent most of his life in denial of his weight problem.

“As a male, you don’t really discuss those things,” said Mercado, a 29-year-old social worker at Haven for Hope. “You are too macho to admit, ‘I am not happy in my own skin.’”

Micahel Mercado cooking pineapples

San Antonio contestant Michael Mercado grills pineapple during a healthy cooking demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America.

The contestants say they are most excited to learn about nutrition—how to read food labels, how to make healthy meals that taste good, how to serve appropriate portions.

Nadia Rivas, a contestant from Portland, near Corpus Christi, said the produce aisle vexes her. She knows Swiss chard is healthy, but has no idea how to prepare it.

“Am I just supposed to chomp on this?” Rivas said. “I am not a world class cook, but I think if I can get my children started now liking things, opening their palettes to good culinary taste, that would benefit them.”

Scoff away, urban foodies. But try to step out of your bubble for a minute.

Cooking just isn’t everybody’s thing. People work hard, family schedules are chaotic and eating out is a fallback for folks who don’t spend their day fantasizing about the espresso-rubbed venison they plan on making for dinner. And if you don’t live in hipster central, most of your dining options consist of cheap, highly-processed food that’s heavy on calories and light on nutrition.

It’s easy to see how we got here, much harder to dig our way out. Given the options, people who truly want to eat healthy must make the effort to prepare more meals at home.

Which brings us back to H-E-B.

I think it goes without saying that H-E-B wants people to shop for food at its stores. But this contest is not a gimmick to get customers in the door. Seriously, we all already shop at H-E-B.

What H-E-B wants is for Texans to walk into their stores and make healthier choices, for themselves, for their families, for the whole state. When people start doing that, the food revolution will be upon us.

It’s already upon us, and the Slim Down Showdown is proof that people are hungry, (pardon the pun) for change.

As Mercado puts it, “Education is key. Knowledge is power.”

Photos courtesy of H-E-B

A former education reporter at the San Antonio Express-News, Melissa Ludwig works as a senior account supervisor at the DeBerry Group, where she manages public relations for H-E-B’s education and health initiatives. She also fronts the Melissa Ludwig Band.  You can follow Ludwig on Facebook.


5 thoughts on “H-E-B Slim Down Showdown Challenges Contestants to Peel Off the Pounds

  1. Maybe I would believe HEB on this a bit more if their advertisements didn’t include “Meal Deals” of pre-cooked Brisket, BBQ sauce, Cole Slaw ‘kit’, potato chips, brats, and sweetened pre-made tea. That is my local HEB Meal Deal this week; it includes TWO meats and the only vegetable included is supposed to be covered in creamy sauce?

    That is not a healthy meal. Why not throw in something fresh from the produce section if you are implying that the grouping should constitute a meal? Half of the first page is for vegetables, but the rest is for meats, prepared foods, packaged foods, and non-edibles.

    This project of HEB’s, while it may make a difference in the lives of a handful, strikes me primarily as PR. Changing what and how they stock stores is how they could make a real difference. Building a smaller store downtown that stocked mostly produce, fresh meat, and necessities (toilet paper, toothpaste, eggs, milk, etc.) would make a real difference. Building nice sidewalks to and from and nice bus stops in front of their gargantuan stores would make a difference.

    • So, HEB should just carry ONLY Healthy food? It’s still a business and must provide what people want to stay in business. The only way to make a difference is through education – which they are clearly trying to do. HEB’s responsibility here is to provide options, not limit what people have access to. Have you checked out their healthy meal deals?

      As far as PR goes – seems to be working. It’s got you and me talking about healthy eating. It’s already working!

      • Maybe I’m suggesting that HEB can try to do the healthy-eating PR, but their business model does not encourage it. I’m willing to bet profits would decline significantly if more people ate more fresh fruits and vegetables, because the profit margin is usually lower. They have more “fruit snacks” and “fruit drinks” options at my store than actual fruit options.

        They are indeed a business. So in my cold, jaded, skeptical mind, I see this program as a tax write-off with good PR and an added side benefit for a few lucky participants who will likely become lifelong customers, if they aren’t already.

        My optimistic side wishes the contestants nothing but the best. Balancing everyday life, exercise, and healthy eating can be hard. Changing a lifetime of habits takes support, and putting yourself and your health before the needs of others is not common. But the taste of freshly-made healthy food is amazing. Reaching fitness goals, like being able to run a mile or a 5k for the first time in years is incredibly satisfying. Feeling healthier and having more energy is worth the effort it takes to get there. I hope the contestants have the support of their families AND that their families join them on the journey to a healthier lifestyle.

        Getting me to talk about healthy eating is not hard. Getting profit-generating businesses aligned with what is healthiest for the public seems impossible. What Lindsay describes below is unfortunately a very common experience, and grocery stores, advertising, and food manufacturers like HEB have a lot to do with it.

        • So it’s society then? We need to change the world. The reality is that fresher/healthier food costs more and the grocery store makes more money off of these often “trendier” items. Actually, fresh produce, meats, seafood and freshly prepared foods make the store more money. This is purely a by product of basic economics: supply and demand. HEB doesn’t force anyone to eat or buy anything. All it does is meets the demands of the consumer.

          The only way to get rid of junk food from the store is to decrease its demand. When the demand for healthier options goes up, then the store will have no choice but to change to accomodate the need.

          Proof of the nature of it all – what costs more? “Healthy” cereal or sugary, no nutritional value, cartoon character on the box cereal? Which one do you think HEB would RATHER sell? I’m guessing the more expensive one with a greater profit margin. Which one do you think they sell more of?

          In this case, I applaud HEB’s efforts to make a difference and further education. They are doing more than I would expect them to do and certainly more than any other grocery store has done. Education is THE ONLY WAY to change how our country eats.

  2. I think this is a really awesome program. I’d like to see HEB, or someone else, expand it into schools because we are going to have to deal with this problem exponentially in the future if we don’t get more information to them instead of just slickly produced ad campaigns for junk food.

    At the end of the school year, I did a paper mâché project with my students. Something that surprised me is they kept saying how much they smelled and how weird the smell was while they were drying. The glue we used was just made of flour and water, so the room really just smelled like flour. At first that threw me off, but I started to think about it, and I’m not sure I really worked with actual flour until I was in my 20s. Sweets at our house were boxed mixes, bread was the kind bought made and sliced already. My family is definitely not in the minority there. My parents made us dinner every night, but everything came from heavily processed sources, just like everyone else I knew. I thought I hated vegetables until I was about 23, but what I really hated was canned vegetables, and like anything else, eating them cooked well changed my entire outlook on things.

    I don’t fault my parents for this; in many ways, culinary traditions and education weren’t really passed down to them, either. I’m one of those “hipster foodies”, I’ll ‘fess up to that. But before that, I gained a lot of weight when I moved back to San Antonio. I worked full time, sometimes multiple jobs, while I went to college, and got pretty hooked on fast and cheap food. But I also would indulge at better restaurants sometimes, and that’s when I really started developing mu opinions on what I liked to eat past pizza and burgers. And then, because I’m on a budget, I spent a lot of time catching up to what many other people my age already knew how to do: I learned to cook. Somewhat anyway, I baked own bread. I grow some of my own veggies. I’m learning every day to be more self-sufficient in the kitchen. Some people I work with have complemented my culinary skills now, and it means so much to me when they do because I know I worked really hard on my own to learn about food and how to cook it. I understand the comment about Swiss chard; I still get really confused by some things I buy in the produce section. But I, like so many other in San Antonio, come from families with a history of diabetes and heart problems, and I want to try to combat that the best I can. Plus, the more I learn about food, the more scare I get by all the crazy things companies put in it. I’ll admit, when I see students come to school with nothing for lunch but energy drinks and Cheetos, part of me is horrified, but the other part of me really empathizes with their parents because it can be hard to try to provide and make sure your kid gets fed when you’re short on time, you’re short on money, you don’t really know how to cook, and you THINK you’re being healthy because the package says it is and you e never been taught otherwise. We all tell kids to eat their fruits and veggies, but we as a society need to take that a step farther and teach kids HOW or it will never happen; we just can’t compete with the onslaught of other forces without giving them tools to protect themselves.

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