SAN ANTONIO — Chris Sonnier knew he was in trouble when he tipped the scale at 300 pounds, found out he was in the first stage of diabetes, and was prescribed medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol.
“I decided I needed to make a lifestyle change if I want to live another 30-plus years,” Sonnier told SN.
Thanks to his employer — the H.E. Butt Grocery Co.  — Sonnier is getting help.
He is one of 12 H-E-B employees selected from over 400 applicants to compete in H-E-B’s “The Slim Down Showdown.”
The 12-week wellness program kicked off in January with a free weeklong stay at the Cooper Institute Dallas, a research and education organization dedicated to preventive medicine. Residing in a hotel on Cooper’s 38-acre campus, H-E-B employees met with dietitians and physicians; received physicals, blood work and cardiac evaluations; and attended lectures, cooking lessons and field trips to restaurants.
They have since applied what they’ve learned to everyday living. All are blogging about their efforts on the H-E-B intranet to motivate fellow employees.
On March 30, all 12 contestants will be weighed in and judged on overall health improvement, including blood pressure, glyceride and glucose levels. The person whose health improved the most will win $10,000.
Sonnier, whose 50th birthday is quickly approaching, has already lost 25 pounds. He hopes to shed a total of 50 by the end of the contest. His long-term goal is to be 100 pounds lighter.
Sonnier has worked at San Antonio-based H-E-B for nearly 30 years, currently as area manager for H-E-B’s Shelf Edge department, which handles space planning, analysis, pricing and plan-o-grams.
He entered the contest to take control of his life through steps like tracking calories, committing to an exercise plan and controlling portion sizes.
Each Showdown contestant can have a “buddy” to compete with them. They can choose anyone they want, provided the buddy also works for H-E-B. Sonnier selected his wife of 24 years, Donna Muth, who works in H-E-B’s human resources department.
Muth was eager to be by Sonnier’s side throughout his wellness journey. While Sonnier has tried to get in shape before, the focus was on weight loss and not on healthy lifestyle change, said Muth.
“Now, he is more focused on portion control, healthy food choices, and exercise, rather than the number on the scale,” Muth said.
The “Slim Down Showdown” is the latest phase of a multi-faceted internal wellness program at H-E-B. As an employer of some 76,000 people in a region with high rates of obesity and diabetes, the retailer is committed to promoting a healthy lifestyle, said H-E-B spokeswoman Kate Rogers.
“This is one of our top priorities,” she said.
While H-E-B has had a comprehensive wellness program for years, it wanted to do more work on the prevention side.
The effort gained momentum two years ago with the launch of “Fit to Lead,” a one-day wellness seminar for mid- to upper-level management. Even company president and chief operating officer Craig Boyan has been a “Fit to Lead” student.
“We’re lucky because our senior team is very engaged in this topic,” Rogers said. “It truly cares about its customers as well as its partners.”
The Cooper Institute has more than 300 corporate accounts, but none have addressed wellness like H-E-B, said Todd Whitthorne, executive director of the Cooper Wellness Program, a division at Cooper.
“H-E-B is using this contest to create a healthy culture within the organization,” Whitthorne said.
That’s because H-E-B’s doing more than simply helping its employees lose weight; it’s teaching them how to take personal responsibility for their health.
“H-E-B understands that unless people change their habits, they will not get healthier,” he said.
H-E-B Shoppers Get to Compete
Employees aren’t the only ones to benefit from H-E-B’s wellness initiative. Consumers will also get a chance to get in shape, courtesy of H-E-B.
Twenty-five people from across Texas will be chosen to participate in a 16-week consumer version of H-E-B’s “The Slimdown Showdown.”
Chosen participants will attend a “Fit Camp” June 15-18, in San Antonio. During Fit Camp, professionals from The Cooper Institute and H-E-B will offer education to the contestants on proper nutrition, physical activity and weight management. After Fit Camp, the contestants will return home to apply what they learned.
The person whose health has improved the most after 16 weeks will win $10,000.
Customers can enter at www.heb.com/healthy  through Feb. 29. All participants will be announced on or before May 1.