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Nutrition program makes food fun

Nutrition program makes food fun

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If it weren’t for Amanda Gilley, Pikesville resident Orly Shalem would still be throwing away the most nutritious parts of her salad, thinking she was making the healthy choice.

Orly Shalem, left, meets with Amanda Gilley, the nutrition counseling leader at LifeBridge.

Shalem, a 46-year-old mother of three, always considered herself food savvy. Yet she always shunned dark-leaf lettuce, preferring the lighter, crispier varieties. Then, in October, during a program at LifeBridge Health & Fitness in Pikesville, she met Gilley, a registered dietician and trained chef who taught Shalem that not all lettuce is created equal.

That’s just one lesson Shalem and dozens of other clients in LifeBridge’s new nutrition counseling program have learned since Gilley started it in August.

LifeBridge’s program offers mix-and-match services to both members and non-members. The company’s aim: to be “the ultimate wellness destination,” said Jarred Fajerski, the center’s executive director.

The program centers around in-office counseling sessions. Gilley meets with individuals or small groups — husband-and-wife duos, for example — to evaluate their eating habits, conduct metabolic testing, set dietary and weight-loss goals and measure progress.

Gilley also offers an online, interactive nutrition challenge customized to a client’s needs. It’s a strict eight-day plan, complete with motivational emails and action items designed to get someone out of a rut or kick-start a new eating plan, she said.

The program offers some serious, hands-on nutrition training. Gilley takes clients to a grocery store of their choice to teach them efficient shopping strategies, explain how to select healthy foods and point out surprising places where unhealthy items often lurk.

“I’ve been working out at LifeBridge for probably 16 years, and I thought I knew a lot,” Shalem said. “But when she took us on the tour and explained how to purchase what, when to eat, how to read labels … I realized there was so much more for me to know. I used to take romaine lettuce and cut off the dark parts, but she told me that’s the part you want to eat.”

Gilley also offers in-home cooking lessons. She’ll craft a menu based on the client’s preferences and dietary needs, buy the groceries and head to their home to prepare the meal, armed with tips and tricks to help the client learn healthy cooking methods.

“It’ll be tailored to you, but it’s not three-course gourmet meals,” Gilley said. “It’s just quick and easy meals that people can prepare throughout the week.”

The cost of each service varies depending on the size of the group and length of the session. Gilley said a 30-minute individual counseling session runs $63, while an individual grocery tour costs $199 and an in-home cooking lesson with meal preparation (groceries included) is $399 per evening.

Fajerski said the customized, hands-on components of the program set it apart from nutrition-related offerings at other gyms.

“Diet and exercise have always gone hand-in-hand — you never hear one without the other,” Fajerski said. “So I thought we really needed a nutrition component in our facility, and I wanted to do it differently than anyone else.”

Fajerski said it took months to find Gilley, a 23-year-old Mount Washington resident with both culinary and clinical dietetics experience, a combination he said “doesn’t grow on trees.”

Because the program is still only a few months old, Fajerski said it accounts for a very small percentage of total revenue at the fitness center, which has almost 5,000 members and grosses nearly $6 million a year.

“We’re a word-of-mouth business … so you need to see some success and get people talking to get the ball rolling,” Fajerski said. “But over time, I do see it becoming one of our stronger revenue programs, especially as we get the payers — private insurance and Medicare — involved.”

Clients have to pay out of pocket for grocery tours and in-home cooking lessons, but nutrition counseling and metabolic testing are covered by Medicare and some private insurance plans — particularly if the policyholder has certain medical conditions. Fajerski said LifeBridge has submitted the paperwork required in order to bill for those services and is awaiting confirmation.

He expects the fitness center will be able to bill insurers within a month, but said he’s not sure whether clients who have already received counseling or testing will be able to bill their insurer retroactively. Down the road he said, as the health care environment changes, insurers may start covering more services like the ones Gilley provides.

Shalem, who met Gilley while completing a 90-day fitness program with a nutrition counseling component, said she “absolutely” plans to continue weekly counseling after that program ends.

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