Can Whole Foods Atone with Wellness Clubs?

Could it be that Whole Foods is putting its money where its mouth is? A few years ago, I accused the chain of hypocritically preaching healthy eating while profiting from the sale of junk food:

“Two-Bite Pecan Tarts" in a plastic tub and prepackaged chicken quesadillas are very, very, very bad for you. Yes, even if they contain organic ingredients. It’s hard to buy Whole Foods’ we-love-healthy-eating shtick when a lot of its profits are made off stuff like this.

Well, well, well. Over the past four months, Whole Foods has somewhat quietly opened a string of gymlike clubs that aim to radically transform members into paragons of healthy eating. Called Wellness Clubs, they exist inside Whole Foods grocery stores in five cities (New York; Chicago; Dedham, Massachusetts; Princeton, New Jersey; and Oakland, California). For $130 (prices may vary by region, or if a particular club is running a special), members have access for three months to daily cooking demonstrations, nutrition and fitness classes, 10 percent discounts on certain healthy products, and reduced admission to a weekly all-you-can-eat dinner called the “supper club.”

To help Wellness Club members adhere to their new healthy diets, there are free weekly support groups, as well as a special seating area where members can “build community” during their weekly dinners.

When I visited the Oakland Wellness Club recently and took a handful of classes, I was shocked at how hardcore the message was. Developed by doctors trained at Dr. McDougall's Health and Medical Center, the curriculum espouses a vegan diet with no added salt or oil. In a class called “The skinny on FATS,” a large portion of the lecture was devoted to slamming both olive oil and nuts for being fat devils in disguise. Later, I watched a chef “sauté” an onion with water to avoid adding extra fat to a vegan stew. If used at all, meat and dairy should be treated “as a condiment,” said Wellness Club instructors, and bread should be eaten only sparingly and in whole-grain form.

Whoah! First, I agree with all this stuff, even if I aspire to healthy eating more than live it (beer, chocolate, bagels and cream cheese, and tacos are all part of my usual weekly diet). But I’m not the majority of Americans, just as I’m not Whole Foods, which makes a lot of money selling exactly the kinds of things its Wellness Clubs are now telling Americans to avoid. Is it possible that Whole Foods is actually trying to do some good, just for the purpose of ... helping people?

In the past, Whole Foods didn’t offer much guidance for customers seeking advice on nutrition, says David Lannon, head of the chain’s healthy eating program and president for the Northern California region. Now, Lannon says, the company has decided to take on obesity, strokes, high blood pressure, cancer, and other diseases of Western excess by educating customers about how to eat.

That’s so nice of them! But what about the fact that most of the company's money comes from sales of meat, wine, fancy cheeses, frozen foods, and other high-ticket items not encouraged at the Wellness Clubs?

“Whole Foods maybe only appeals to 20 percent of the overall population, but a higher percentage of people might come in to eat healthy foods because they see people lowering their cholesterol and losing weight,” says Lannon.

So the idea is for the Wellness Clubs to create an army of Whole Foods evangelists who will recruit new customers with their shiny new healthiness? Some of those shoppers will be buying more wholesome, less expensive stuff, but there will be more new customers overall, or something like that.

Judging from the underattended Wellness Club classes I experienced in Oakland, Whole Foods has yet to see that expected rush of new, health-seeking customers. (In the fats class, I was the sole member.) But Lannon says the program is on track, with “up over 100 members each.” The plan is to roll out a club in every major city, and launch a virtual program next year.

I’m keeping my eye on this curious program. Will it end up being dumbed down to appeal to a mass audience, or will Whole Foods decide to ditch its fancy cheese departments to help fight cancer? I’m kidding.

Lessley Anderson is CHOW's senior manager of content. Follow her on Twitter @lessleyanderson. Follow us @CHOW.

Image source: Oakland Wellness Club courtesy of Whole Foods Market.