Your Company Is About to Get a Lot More Interested in Your Waistline

Exercising While Working
AP/Michael Conroy
By Kathleen Kingsbury

Employers tried the carrot, then a small stick. Now they are turning to bigger cudgels.

For years, they encouraged workers to improve their health and productivity with free screenings, discounted gym memberships and gift cards to lose weight. More recently, a small number charged smokers slightly higher premiums to give them more incentive to quit.

Results for these plans were lackluster, and health care costs continued to soar. So companies are taking advantage of new rules under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul in 2014 to punish smokers and overweight workers.

Some will even force employees to meet weight goals, quit smoking and provide very personal information or pay up to thousands more annually for health care. That could disproportionately affect the poor, who are more likely to smoke and can't afford the higher fees.

Nearly 40 percent of large U.S. companies will use surcharges in 2014, such as higher insurance premiums or deductibles for individuals who do not complete company-set health goals, according to a survey of 892 employers released in September by human resources consultancy Towers Watson and National Business Group on Health, which represents large employers.

That is almost twice as many as the last time they did the survey in 2011, when only 19 percent of companies had such penalties. The number is expected to climb to two-thirds of employers by 2015.

Employers are getting much more aggressive about punishing workers who are overweight or have high cholesterol. A study released on Wednesday by the Obesity Action Coalition, an advocacy group, covered workers at more than 5,000 companies who must participate in their employer wellness programs to receive full health benefits. Sixty-seven percent also had to meet a weight-related health goal such as a certain body mass index.

Almost 60 percent of these workers received no coverage that paid for fitness training, dietitian counseling, obesity drugs or bariatric surgery to help achieve a body mass index under 25, which is considered healthy.

"Weight requirements are an effective way to make it harder for people with obesity to qualify for full health coverage," said Ted Kyle, the study's lead author and founder of Conscienhealth, a Pittsburgh-based company that advises other companies on obesity programs.

"Some programs can verge on discrimination," he said.

Penalties Hit Smokers Hardest

Next year many more companies plan to penalize workers who use nicotine because of their much higher health care costs. Proctor & Gamble Co, the Cincinnati-based household-product giant, will begin charging such employees an additional $25 per month in 2014 until they have completed a company-paid cessation program.

Under similar provisions, state employees in Wisconsin and Washington State will pay as much as $600 more per year, while nonunion smokers at United Parcel Service Inc will pay as much as $1,800.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%"We found that while less than 10 percent of workers at large employers smoke, their impact to health care costs is disproportionately huge," said LuAnn Heinen, vice president for the National Business Group on Health. "Helping them quit -- however you do that -- has the most obvious near-term payoff in terms of savings and productivity gains."

A recent Ohio State University study found that businesses pay nearly $6,000 more annually per employee who smokes compared with a nonsmoker. Other research suggests that less than 16 percent of employees participate in voluntary smoking cessation programs, Heinen added.

A.H. Belo, owner of the Dallas Morning News, Providence Journal and other publications, told staff in September that for 2014 it would require employees and their spouses to complete a biometric health screening or face a $100 annual surcharge. In 2015, employees will be asked not only to undergo the screening but to meet three out of five as yet unspecified health goals to avoid the additional fee.

Costly Punishments

Under Obama's Affordable Care Act, which takes effect in January, companies can offer a reward of up to 30 percent of health care costs paid by the employee to those who complete voluntary programs like smoking cessation, a risk assessment or biometric tests like waist measurement.

The financial incentives could add up to about $1,620 annually per worker. But if wellness programs don't end up saving costs, companies can raise premiums across the board or slap them on workers who don't get with the programs. In some states, tobacco users who sign up for insurance through the new state health exchanges could be charged 50 percent higher premiums than nonsmokers.

Research suggests savings may be harder to achieve when programs are voluntary than has often been thought. A report released in May by the RAND Corp. found workers who participated in a wellness program had health care costs averaging $2.38 less per month than nonparticipants in the first year of the program and $3.46 less in the fifth year.

Some health and labor experts are concerned that penalties may be unduly harsh, especially for low-wage workers and those who have health conditions beyond their control. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 percent of adults with incomes below the federal poverty level smoke, compared with 18 percent of those above the poverty level.

Mark Rothstein, a lawyer and bioethics professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, chooses to pay a higher annual premium rather than complete a health questionnaire for his employer, calling it a "privacy tax." Lower-paid colleagues, he said, "don't have the same luxury to opt out."

Fierce resistance forced Pennsylvania State University in September to abandon a plan to charge employees $100 per month if they did not participate in various health screenings and fill out a detailed health questionnaire administered by WebMD, which asked among other things whether a worker had recently driven after drinking too much, whether female employees planned to become pregnant in the next year and how frequently male workers performed testicular self-exams. This led to an outcry over privacy concerns and the potential for hacking of computer databases.

"These were just things no employer has the right to ask," says Brian Curran, a professor of art history at Penn State who started an online petition to protest the questionnaire.

University officials had argued the penalty was needed to tamp down health care costs and avoid tuition hikes. In January, it still plans to implement a $100-a-month surcharge for spouses and a $75-a-month penalty on tobacco users.

Courts so far have shown little resistance to such programs. The 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prohibits workers who are in a group health insurance plan from being discriminated against on the basis of health, and Obamacare extends that right to individuals. But neither bans penalties outright.

The law does specify that wellness programs must be voluntary, but Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, a legal advocacy organization, says that can be a slippery slope. Most employees don't feel like they have a choice, Maltby says. "In today's job market, any reasonable request by one's employer is essentially read as a demand."

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Your Company Is About to Get a Lot More Interested in Your Waistline

Nearly 30 percent of Americans bought more natural foods in 2011 than the year before, according to a Rodale study. But what are we really paying more for?

There are no clear cut regulations regarding what foods can be called "natural," which means just about any company can slap that label on its packages, add a fancy "green" design and jack up the price.

Says Andrew Schrage of MoneyCrashers: "Before buying any food that is touted as being “all natural,” take a look at the ingredient list before you check out. Keep in mind that butter and salt are indeed natural ingredients. So stocking up on natural foods may not achieve anything other than increasing your grocery bill."

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When it comes to ridiculous-looking toning shoes and clothing designed to help shed pounds faster, you might want to hold off. 

Reebok has already paid $25 million to consumers for allegedly over-marketing its line of toning shoes' weight loss power. And the one study that seems to support the claim that tight-fitting threads help burn more calories only involved about 15 participants.

"I think there are much simpler  and less expensive ways the average person can bump up calorie burn and build strength," says's Liz Neporent. "For instance,  interval training and hill work. These workouts certainly have the science behind them."

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Coconut water may be nature's version of Gatorade but some brands have already caught fire for over-hyping its nutrient content.

Vita Coco agreed to settle a $10 million class-action lawsuit over an independent study that showed the drinks didn't pack near as many electrolytes as advertisements implied.

Some coconut water is also loaded with added sugar, which will do nothing to help your waistline. Instead, pick up your own young green coconuts on the cheap from an Asian produce market. Just crack them open with a cleaver and pop in a straw.

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People really will do anything to shed pounds, even if it means injecting themselves with hormones made from another woman's placenta.

The FDA ordered companies to stop selling HCG (a protein made in the placenta and passed through pregnant woman's' urine) after it was used in conjunction with low-calorie diet regimens. A 40-day kit sells for $120, but the hormone has only been approved for use in fertility treatments.

Per the Mayo Clinic: "HCG is not approved for over-the-counter use, nor has it been proved to work for weight loss. Companies that sell over-the-counter HCG weight-loss products are breaking the law."

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Here's a trend that makes just about every nutritionists' blood boil: the idea that people can purge their bodies of toxins by consuming different variations of liquid diets. 

From the cabbage soup plan to the infamous Beyonce "Master Cleanse", there's hardly any science to back them up, says Essential Nutrition for You's Rania Batayneh.

"What consumers need to know is that your body naturally detoxifies itself through our lungs, skin and kidneys," she said. "Sweat it out, breathe it out and eliminate. Eating a clean diet daily will give you the feeling you are looking forward to at the end of your depriving cleanse, so get started. Besides, cleanses are unnatural and typically based on eliminating food groups and or foods altogether."

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Splenda just rolled out a new version of its popular sweetener -- this time with extra fiber -- but the idea that consumers should pay more for fake sugar that's been pumped with more fake ingredients is slightly irksome.

"Adding healthy components to unhealthy things just doesn’t make sense," says Batayneh. "What is 1 gram of fiber (or maybe 10 for those who over-consume artificial sweeteners) going to do for you when you should really be focusing on whole grains, beans, seeds, fruits and vegetables versus relying on your coffee for fiber? This small dose of fiber should not convince you to try it."

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Batayneh calls this one of the worst weight-loss myths out there and another attempt to play on the low-carb fad sparked by the Atkin's diet. 

"A gluten-free diet does not necessarily mean a low-carb diet," she says. "A person who eats gluten-free can ingest plenty of carbohydrates from gluten-free breads, pastas, cereals, and baked goods as well as vegetables, fruits, beans, and legumes."

Gluten-free lifestyles are vital to anyone with a gluten allergy. But "if you don’t have a medical reason for following a gluten-free diet, there’s probably no benefit,” says Tricia Thompson, R.D., founder of

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Whether or not there are added health benefits to eating organic produce, it's a common misconception that they somehow come packed with less calories than their pesticide-laden brethren. 

Even federal guidelines on what's certified organic aren't all that stringent and plenty of regular produce isn't "dirty" enough to warrant paying top dollar  (as much as 150% more) for organic versions anyway. 

The Environmental Works Group has an excellent chart detailing which non-organically grown produce is most "dirty" and and which is "clean."

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Weight loss has much to do with portion control, but those helpful little 100-calorie pack snacks are nothing but a big budget suck.

"We have portion distortion in this nation and even though I like that [100-calorie packs] are pre-portioned, that can be a more expensive option," Batayneh says.

Instead, keep a measuring cup in your desk drawer to scoop out perfect portions of whatever you're munching on at work (almonds, trail mix, etc.) rather than paying more for packaging.

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There are literally no clinical studies that support claims that antioxidants in acai berries will make you live longer, help you fly, smooth your crow's feet or anything else.

"We've had waves of costly 'super juices' in the marketplace that were nothing more than fruit juice," says clinical nutritionist Stella Metsovas. "Testing chemical properties in a laboratory is completely different once the product is pasteurized. There is no possibility of processing a super-fruit to compete with the natural form (i.e.: a handful of berries)." 

The acai berry's popularity in the U.S. spawned a new wave of consumer scams involving "free trial offers" for smoothies, juices and other products.

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Not only will they destroy your teeth, but a recent study by the American Diabetes Association pretty much proved diet soda drinkers were packing on pounds, not shedding them.

Zero-calorie sodas have also been linked to a slew of nasty diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

If you're looking to kick the habit, try weening yourself off slowly with fizzy substitutes like seltzer water or reducing your portion size bit by bit.

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