Heart of New Ulm Project: A Community's Quest to Eliminate Heart Attacks

By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "The Town That Lost 7,961 Pounds," January/February 2013

How the town of New Ulm joined together to lose weight, lower cholesterol levels and eat healthier.

Changing for Good

On a day last August, Tanya Horner and her mom pull back wood-spindled chairs and sit at a white-clothed table in the New Ulm Turner Hall, surrounded by muted murals of European castles. Once a month, the two splurge on a meal at the club. Mary Koch orders the black bean burger and Horner gets a salad at the salad bar. Today though, she notes, “There are two pita sandwiches that I want to try; Moroccan Chicken Pita is one. They also offer a side salad instead of fries—that’s new.”

In fact, the Turner Hall menu has been completely revamped. For its restaurant program, HONU’s dietitians created a list of criteria for a bronze, silver or gold restaurant (offering a healthy side dish, like a steamed vegetable, or salads as a French fry substitute, or using olive oil instead of butter) and worked with restaurants to highlight heart-healthy menu items, and then create even healthier ones.

Turner Club manager Virginia Suker Moldan was skeptical when she first talked to Boucher and others in 2009. “It sounded like a fine idea but I didn’t think it would work here,” she remembers. “We have an older demographic; we’re known for having humungous portions of both American and German food.”

Two years later, much has changed and she proudly displays the made-over menu, complete with salads and heart-healthy fish. “I don’t know when it seemed to be cost-effective to [take part in HONU], but suddenly it was. We were starting to lose customers because we had this heavy meat-and-potato menu. When we started adding salads, I was blown away at how many we went through. It was like somebody flipped a switch. HONU has changed the town.”

Horner and Koch have changed how they cook and eat at home too. Koch stopped mindless snacking and started planning and cooking healthy meals. “We use shredded zucchini now as noodles,” says Horner. They go on to talk about using ground cauliflower as rice; this amazing grilled tuna steak with veggies that they made.

The mother and daughter could talk all day about food—healthy food—and how to buy it, how to cook it, how to eat it. But exercise was their biggest challenge. “Last winter it was so cold, we were not getting our exercise,” said Horner. HONU started sponsoring free nights at the indoor walking track. “So we started doing those twice a week and challenging ourselves to run the corners. It would be packed some nights: young people, college students, some elderly folks, everyone.”

Just as important is the community mindset: the mother and daughter keep each other in check. “I mean, put that chocolate bar down now!’ says Horner, with a laugh. And they forgive themselves when they slip up.

After months of eating better, exercising and just generally changing her life, Horner remembers her first big triumph. “About 30 pounds in, I noticed that my throat was really sore. I came in to the hospital and said, ‘My CPAP [sleep apnea machine] isn’t working.’ The doctor said, ‘You can just put that thing in the closet, you don’t need it anymore,’” she remembers. “I was ecstatic. Nervous, but ecstatic. That’s been awesome, not having to lug that thing around anymore.”

Her mother concurs. “I just had my cholesterol tested,” Koch said. “I dropped 10 points. My goal was my cholesterol, because I don’t want to take pills.” Her BMI has also dropped another 5 points.

“And my blood pressure has dropped,” Horner added. “Now it’s on the low side of healthy.”

As the conversation continues, mother and daughter talk about how far they’ve come. Eating right, finding their passion for healthier foods, supporting each other, trying new things. “I want to lose about another 35 pounds,” says Horner. “I’m still losing, it’s just slow.”

“Well, I think it’s slowed down because we aren’t so geared to ‘Let’s lose the weight,’ we’re geared towards health. We’re still trying to lose but in a much more sustainable way,” says Koch with a laugh.

Inspired by HONU, the duo walked their first 6K, the Schell Brewery Lager Lauf, last May. HONU helped the brewery get that event off the ground. Prior to HONU, only one annual walk/run was held in New Ulm. Now there are eight.

“The run/walk events here have been promoted as fun things, not races,” said Koch. “Because for people like us who just want to stay healthy, you don’t want to do the race as a competitive thing.”

“Yeah,” says Horner, skeptically, pointing a thumb at her mom. “And as she’s booking up that hill, she’s saying, ‘Don’t let the old lady kick your butt!’”

After all, a little competition can be healthy.

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