Tag Archive | "diet"

Doug Mercer

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Doug Mercer

By Claire Walla

A Conversation with Doug Mercer the proponent of fostering healthier eating habits on the East End who founded the Wellness Foundation in East Hampton in 2005. The organization will hold its first benefit later this month.

The Wellness Challenge promotes eating an all vegan diet for six weeks, eliminating meat and dairy. What’s the biggest problem with animal products?

It’s the cholesterol and the fat. Meat just doesn’t have the phytonutrients you need.

We don’t have anything around here that says, “We’re trying to crank-out vegans.” We focus on empowering people so they can maximize their wellness potential, so incremental improvements are also extremely important. With meat, it’s a function of the volume you’re consuming. Dr. [Antinia Fermin, a Wellness Foundation consultant and author of the book “Food Is Elementary”] says if you’re consuming 90 percent natural plant food you’re in reasonable shape.

Are you yourself strictly vegan?

No, I have fish a couple times a week and egg whites maybe once a week.

How many people have participated in the program thus far?

We’re up to about 500 people since [the Wellness Challenge began in earnest] in 2009. The average total cholesterol drop is about 35 points and weight loss is about nine pounds. But, even more importantly, there are other factors related to how you feel and how much energy you have, like [reduced] joint pain, headaches and upper respiratory congestion.

Do you know how many people actually stick with the program?

We don’t have any hard numbers on that, but that’s what we’re working on getting going forward.



What was your reason for making lifestyle changes yourself?

It was to avoid the strokes that caused my Dad’s early death. He was 62 when he had his first stroke. He basically turned into a vegetable.

What was your diet like at that point?

It was a standard American diet. Good, but far too much dairy and far too much meat. One of the things I noticed immediately after cutting out the dairy [in 1999] was it eliminated upper respiratory congestion. Chronic bronchitis had been a problem for me throughout my life.

Why did you decide to create the Wellness Foundation and introduce these lifestyle changes to others?

In 2005, the kids at the middle school in East Hampton had been boycotting the unhealthy food in their cafeteria. I thought, here’s how I can do something for my immediate community.

The Wellness Foundation focuses on a plant-based diet, exercise and the reduction of stress. Why this specific lifestyle?

I guess I knew that scientifically it would work — it was working for me. My major question was what its reception would be like here. In 2005, that was very much at the beginning of the current trend [in healthier eating]. In all honesty, we were just lucky. At this point, we actually have doctors participating and even recommending their patients take the Challenge.

The Wellness Foundation will be holding its first Benefit on June 30. Do you have a specific goal for the money you hope to raise?

To reach more people with the programs we already have in place. The first six years it was all my plan; I funded all the operations at that point. A year ago we started a community-based fundraising initiative and this is the first year we’ve had a benefit.

I imagine it’s pretty difficult for people to make some of the lifestyle changes the Wellness Challenge promotes.

Yeah, but I think it used to be more awkward. I used to feel more self-conscious about it, particularly around the guys. But, the options are better now. Our Wellness Challenge ‘W’ is on the menu in 22 local restaurants. And you can always eat from the side dishes, ask not to have white bread, order a salad with oil and vinegar on the side…

We’re really addressing the causes of degenerative diseases through lifestyle. This is a lifestyle change that really has to come from your gut. You have to do it yourself, which is really the American Way.


The first annual Wellness Foundation Summer Benefit will be June 30 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Mercer’s residence at 65 Dunemere Lane, overlooking Hook Pond in East Hampton Village. Tickets are $150 each and can be ordered at www.wfeh.org or by calling 329-2590. RSVP by June 16.

Jelly in a Jam at Pierson

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PB&JSandwich

By Claire Walla


Before showing a Power Point presentation on unhealthy eating habits and the rise of obesity in the United States last Wednesday, Sag Harbor Elementary School parent Susan Lamontagne dropped dozens of bite-sized chocolates onto the wooden table where board of education members sat facing an uncharacteristically large crowd. The candies fell to the table with loud thuds, causing board members to lean back in their chairs.

“This is just to show that I’m not totally against this stuff,” Lamontagne explained as a disclaimer before proceeding with the rest of her presentation, which outlined what she referred to as a health crisis in the United States.

Lamontagne attended the April 18 board meeting, along with a handful of other Sag Harbor mothers, including youth sports coordinator Allison Scanlon, Barbara Kinnier of the Wellness Foundation in East Hampton, and Barbara Clark, a member of the school district’s Wellness Committee. The mothers came en masse to speak out against a proposed revision to the school’s relatively new Wellness Policy, which was unanimously adopted by the board in November.

“If you reverse the current policy, you’d be moving backwards on an issue that every other school is moving forward on,” Clark said.

“I feel very strongly that we should keep [the Wellness Policy] as is, even strengthen it,” Scanlon added. “Any measures to allow food and beverages back into the cafeteria that contain high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners would be detrimental to students and staff.”

The board was set to discuss changes to two specific paragraphs of the newly adopted policy, which were proposed by board member Sandi Kruel.

Rather than strictly limit the presence of “non-nutritive” sweeteners like sucralose, saccharine and aspartame — which the current policy now does — the revision suggests those items be sold “at a minimum.” Similarly, it suggests foods containing hydrogenated or trans-fats or high-fructose corn syrup — also barred by the current policy — “only be sold at the school if another product cannot be substituted.”

More specifically, the discussion seemed to hinge on jelly and diet Lipton Green Tea.

Kruel said she was first made aware of issues with the current Wellness Policy when a parent complained that her daughter, who is diabetic, doesn’t have any drink options in the cafeteria now that the Wellness Policy is in place. The student used to drink Diet Lipton Green Tea, which contains artificial sweeteners and is therefore prohibited by the school’s Wellness Policy.

According to Kruel, failing to provide more sugar-free drink options — beyond water — for children with diabetes is essentially a form of discrimination.

“We have vegan options and gluten-free options,” she said, comparing diabetes to certain other dietary restrictions. “I’m not asking for Diet Pepsi,” she continued. “But to tell someone to just drink water is kind of pompous, if you ask me.”

Furthermore, Kruel said she pushed for more leniency regarding high-fructose corn syrup because the school’s chef recently expressed concern over the fact that he’s technically unable to serve the school’s “no-cost” lunch option — a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — now that high-fructose corn syrup has been prohibited. It was one of the main ingredients in the jelly he had been using.

[District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said in an interview this week that he spoke with the school’s chef and made sure that peanut butter sandwiches (without the jelly) and apples could be substituted for PB&J.]

“I don’t think we have the right to say absolutely no to everything,” she added. And for this reason, Kruel said the main issue is that students need to learn how to make educated choices. “I teach my children: everything in moderation, because you’re just not going to be able to walk into an IGA or King Kullen and not find high-fructose corn syrup.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller would agree on one point: that education is a key component to fostering the health and wellness of students within the Sag Harbor School District.

However, she and Kruel fall on two very different sides of the green-tea-and-jelly debate.

Miller, who was responsible in large part for crafting the new wellness policy, firmly believes that the strict elimination of ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners is non-negotiable.

“I am opposed to revising the policy because I don’t think we should lower the bar, I think those things can be dealt with,” she explained. “These are not challenges to me, and I think we can get around this without limiting choices.”

She said the problems posed by green tea and jelly can be mitigated with more creativity and careful planning when it comes to purchasing. Though it takes time to search for more healthy items, and they may not be as cheap as fructose-filled jam, she added that the school could certainly buy a jelly made without high-fructose corn syrup, as well sugar-free drinks that don’t contain artificial sweeteners.

According to the district’s Business Director Janet Verneuille, the school district is currently in the process of bidding out food items for next year.

“Our intent is to include a jelly product that meets the district’s required specifications as part of this bid for the 2012-13 school year,” Verneuille wrote in an email. “We are optimistic that a vendor will win the contract to provide the desired jelly product at the lowest price to the cafeteria.”

The shift in the school’s approach to health and nutrition would bring about a “culture change” that Miller said she always anticipated when she sat down to write the Wellness Policy — she never expected these changes to be easy.

However, she continued, the obesity epidemic in the United States is so pervasive that making these blanket changes, in her eyes, is non-negotiable.

“This is an issue all over the country, school districts are trying to raise the bar with regard to health and wellness,” she continued. “I don’t think we can not do it.”

As she stood before the members of the Sag Harbor School Board, Susan Lamontagne pointed to slides depicting information gathered by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Obesity in the United States has doubled in the last 20 years, she said, and the instance of diabetes has tripled.

She picked up handfuls of candies and dropped them back onto the table, causing more “thuds,” as well as growing alarm among board members, for whom the candy was getting too close for comfort.

That was her point.

“We’re surrounded by this stuff!” Lamontagne exclaimed. “It makes all of us parents who are trying to do the good thing look like the bad guys.”

“I commend you for the changes we’re already making,” she continued, voicing support for the district’s current Wellness Plan. “It’s so vitally important that we have healthier foods in school, without high-fructose corn syrup.”

Creating a Healthier School District from the Top Down

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Heller_BH School Wellness Challenge_6099

By Kathryn G. Menu

Bridgehampton teacher Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz begins most days with a plate of eggs and cheese, “usually on top of something buttered.”
Until today, that is.

Carmack-Fayyaz is one of about a dozen members of the Bridgehampton Union Free School District participating in the Winter Wellness Challenge, sponsored and facilitated by the East Hampton based not-for-profit Wellness Foundation.

The Wellness Foundation, founded in 2005 by East Hampton resident Doug Mercer, is dedicated to empowering East End residents to live healthier lives through changes in diet, exercise and lifestyle by providing resources, hosting events like film screenings and lectures, as well as through initiatives like the Winter Wellness Challenge.

At its core, the Winter Wellness Challenge asks participants to engage in a vegan-inspired, whole foods diet, as well as increase exercise for six weeks. During the course of the challenge, groups will meet weekly for lectures on health, wellness, cooking classes and for general support.

This winter’s program has over 80 participants from East Hampton through Southampton, including Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton. The scientifically-based program is free, funded by the Wellness Foundation, which hopes to use the results of the challenge to further their research into the physical benefits of a whole foods, nutrient rich diet.

According to Wellness Foundation Outreach Director Barbara Kinnier, a Sag Harbor resident who will facilitate the wellness challenges in Sag Harbor and in Bridgehampton, blood tests were taken by all participants at the start and end of the challenge. Changes in cholesterol and glucose will be measured, along with each participant’s waistline — another indicator of good health.

Whether or not participants choose to share their results with the rest of the group is up to them, said Kinnier, as the foundation aims to protect privacy while encouraging changes in behavior.

According to Kinnier, the main goal is to educate participants about the benefits of a nutrient dense diet, made up primarily of vegetables and fruits.

“The thing about the body that is amazing is that it wants to heal itself and on the cellular level, the body is in fact healed through these foods,” said Kinnier. “And we make it taste good.”

Organizing a group at Bridgehampton School to join this winter’s challenge was the brainchild of new superintendent Dr. Lois Favre, who was inspired after school nurse Elizabeth Alves showed her the DVD “Processed People,” which the Wellness Foundation screened at the school earlier this month in the evening for community members.

Dr. Favre said in light of the new greenhouse on the school grounds — one that will soon produce salad greens and vegetables for the school’s brand new salad bar station — she felt the Winter Wellness Challenge presented the staff and faculty with an opportunity to set a good example for Bridgehampton School students.

Dr. Favre will take part in the challenge herself, along with about 10 members of the school’s faculty and staff.

“I also thought it might be a great way to get to know my staff in a different capacity, alongside them, getting healthy,” said Dr. Favre.

“I am hoping it builds the capacity for bringing more of what’s good for us into our program of studies for our students, into our cafeteria and ultimately to our families,” added Dr. Favre.

Carmack-Fayyaz said she was thrilled with Dr. Favre’s initiative, adding the program is very much in line with changes at Bridgehampton School — in particular the introduction of landscape design and nutrition classes crafted around an outdoor garden and now a greenhouse, which will be completed in March.

“We started our nutrition and culinary arts class here, and we have been teaching our students the Slow Food philosophy,” said Carmack-Fayyaz. “It was striking because at first a lot of the students had this idea that being a vegan would be a very scary thing, that it was impossible to do, but we assembled some really great vegan salads in our class, and I think they were surprised by it.”

She said she hopes to chart some of the wellness challenge results for student’s to see, in particular how much each participant is logging on the pedometers they will wear throughout the course of the challenge.
“I think the biggest challenge will be re-conceptualizing what a meal is comprised of and giving most of the plate over to the vegetables,” said Carmack-Fayyaz. “I know personally, it is a little scary — the idea of eating essentially a vegan diet for six weeks — but my hope is after the challenge I can cut down my meat consumption to one or two small servings a week and eat a more plant-based diet. I don’t think I will end up staying a full fledged vegan though.”

For Dr. Favre, fitting exercise into her busy schedule will be the biggest challenge, although she noted she will have the support of some staff members who aren’t even participating in the nutrition aspect of the program, but are committed to walking each day.

“I am hoping for renewed energy as is promised, and also gratifying will be the congeniality that will be built with staff around issues of taking care of ourselves, while we look after and inspire our students,” said Dr. Favre.
That is not to say the thought of cheesy pizza and a good hamburger will not haunt the superintendent as she embarks on this dietary challenge, although Dr. Favre said she was hopeful she would find new favorite foods in her vegan diet.

“I know that right now tofu is not on my hit parade,” she said. “But ask me later and I will share my new favorites.”