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Sweeney is Hy-Vee’s new dietitian

ISU graduate wants to make healthy choices easy

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Rachel Sweeney, Hy-Vee dietitian, is all smiles as she holds two of her favorite items in the produce section at the Fort Dodge store. In her right hand is Holiday Grapes. She is holding Short Cuts vegetables in her left hand. Sweeney became the dietitian in August.

New Hy-Vee Dietitian Rachel Sweeney is eager to educate and help Fort Dodge area residents make healthier choices when it comes to the food they eat.

“The most exciting part is helping people make decisions and answer questions at the time when they are making that choice about what food product to buy,” Sweeney said. “I can be here right when they are making that choice and take them right to that item and show some different options they have and help them feel empowered to improve their health.”

Sweeney began her duties at Hy-Vee’s Fort Dodge store in August. She replaces Amber Kastler in her role as the store’s dietitian. Sweeney will also work one day a week at the Hy-Vee in Webster City.

One area of improvement for Iowans in particular, is the number of fruits and vegetables people consume.

According to Sweeney, who grew up on a farm near Iowa City, Iowa ranks 49th in the nation in fruit and vegetable consumption.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Rachel Sweeney, Hy-Vee dietitian, shows off the bulk bin section of the store, which features healthy options like quinoa and pepitas.

“It’s probably a safe assumption to say we could do better in that category,” said Sweeney, who graduated from Iowa State University with degrees in dietetics and exercise science. “That would probably be my first piece of advice. That’s maybe nothing new, but I am here to help people figure out how to make those fit.”

Sweeney added, “I encourage people to eat the rainbow. Try and get a variety. Each color category provides different nutrients for our health. Orange vegetables and fruits, red and dark green.”

She said Hy-Vee offers a variety of ways to incorporate fruits and vegetables.

“We have lots of frozen items, ready to go fruits, canned fruits and vegetables,” Sweeney said.

She recommends canned fruits with low sugar or canned in water.

“And they (canned fruits) are often the most inexpensive choice out of fresh, frozen and canned,” Sweeney said.

As Sweeney makes her way around the store, she marks food items that she recommends with a teal-colored sticker. Most of those items are low in sodium.

“Healthier options are highlighted with the dietitians choice tag,” Sweeney said. “I have highlighted products that may improve cholesterol, lower blood pressure — foods that are lower in sodium, gluten free and organic. Those are things that even if they don’t visibly see me in the store, they can use those as a guide.”

Heart disease and diabetes are two of the most common conditions that plague Americans, according to Sweeney.

“America as a whole, those are the two biggest things America faces,” Sweeney said. “Those two chronic diseases and it’s no different here in Iowa.”

According to Sweeney, one and three Americans has pre-diabetes. she said nine out of 10 people with pre-diabetes don’t even know they have it.

Part of Sweeny’s job is to help people with lifestyle behaviors, especially after they are diagnosed with something like diabetes. Type 1 diabetes means the pancreas produces little to no insulin, while type 2 diabetes means the insulin produced is either not enough or doesn’t work properly in the body.

“That’s where I come in and help people manage their blood sugar and help them with food choices to help prevent those conditions or if they already have them, reduce the severity of their condition,” Sweeney said.

On Nov. 4 from 3 to 7 p.m., the Hy-Vee Healthy You Mobile will be coming to Fort Dodge to offer free Hemoglobin A1C screenings for National Diabetes Month.

“We are excited to bring the Hy-Vee Healthy You Mobile here,” Sweeney said. “It is a motor home and we use it as a mobile clinic.”

The mobile clinic provides screenings for customers.

Sweeney said the Hemoglobin and A1C screenings help determine someone’s blood glucose control over the pat two months.

If the number is too high, Sweeney said the person is asked to follow up with their physician.

She said normally the screenings are $35.

Anyone interested in signing up can register on the Hy-Vee website or email Sweeney at rsweeney@hy-vee.com .

Sweeney said walk-ins are welcome, but it’s encouraged that people sign up to make sure they have a spot.

Another way Sweeney will be helping those with diabetes is offering store tours.

“We go around the store for 45 minutes and highlight foods that are better options for someone with diabetes,” she said.

Those tours will be held Nov. 7 from 5:30 p.m. to 6:15 p.m.; November 15 from noon to 12:45 p.m.; November 23 from 11 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.; and Nov. 25 from 5:15 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Tryday Friday is another event in November that Sweeney worked with the produce department on.

“It’s a chance for people to try a new produce item,” Sweeney said. “We are encouraging people to make half of their plate fruits and vegetables. There will be an opportunity to try something before they buy it and ask questions.”

Tryday Friday will be every Friday in November from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

One particular item that Sweeney said can be a good snack or meal replacement for someone with diabetes is Glucerna Hunger Smart, which is like a shake.

“That’s a product that has a limited amount of carbohydrates in it,” Sweeney said. “For someone who has diabetes, it’s important to be mindful of which carbohydrate they are choosing.”

Sweeney advises diabetics to eat three meals a day with one to two snacks.

“That’s just to help them have steady blood sugars throughout the day so they don’t have those highs and lows,” Sweeney said. “It can be pretty overwhelming to have a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease, so I try to help them with initial questions and try to make things specific to their particular concerns.”

In terms of trends in health and wellness, Sweeney said there is less emphasis on a person’s weight than maybe there was a few years go.

While that is still an important factor, Sweeney said there is much more to someone’s health than just weight.

“Not to say weight doesn’t have some play, but there is so much more to the picture to someone’s health,” Sweeney said. “So we offer a biometric screening. I do a small finger prick, test cholesterol, blood sugar, and then we will do height, weight, waist and hip circumference, blood pressure and body fat percentage.”

She added, “All of those numbers can paint a much better picture of someone’s health and where we can improve things, rather than just focusing on the number on the scale. I encourage people to get back to the basics, planning out meals and snacks, eating together as a family. We live very busy lives, people have a lot going on. So here at Hy-Vee, we try to make things as simple as we can.”

About Rachel Sweeney

Sweeney graduated from West Branch High School, home of Herbert Hoover.

She was involved in 4-H growing up.

“That spurred my interest in how food is grown and produced,” Sweeney said. “It doesn’t just show up in a grocery store.”

Sweeney studied dietetics and exercise science at Iowa State University in Ames. She graduated a combined bachelor’s and master’s program there in 2011.

Following college graduation, Sweeney completed a one-year internship at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I got to live on music row for a year and work with a new population,” Sweeney said.

But ultimately, she missed the Midwest.

“I liked it, but being 10 hours from family was too far,” Sweeney said. “That brought me back to Iowa.”

For the past six-and-half years, she has been working as a dietitian out of the Johnson County Iowa State University Extension and Outreach office.

She lives near Alden.