South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS)
Nutrition is tasty medicine
You cannot get a prescription from the South Texas VA Pharmacy for a barbecue chicken sandwich, or chipotle chicken taco salad, but it is prescribed during the Healthy Teaching Kitchen Class delivered by Nutrition and Food Service at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital.
The class is taught by Registered Dietitian Charles Coleman, who uses his love of good food for inspiration. “After I quit cooking professionally, I wanted to find another way to share my love of good and healthy food with people,” Coleman said. His broad range of experience includes over a decade of diabetes research, and as an executive chef for HEB product development.
Preventative medicine, like the Healthy Teaching Kitchen program is a critical component of VA healthcare. It is imperative because almost 25 percent of all VA patients have diabetes.
Getting Veterans to change lifelong habits isn’t easy, so Coleman says you have to go with what you know. Although he cannot alter National program guidelines, his recipe selections are based around the local community and culture. The twelve-week course is often filled with popular Tex-Mex recipes. Those selections are absolutely fine with Veteran Gerald Peters who was borderline diabetic, and the Healthy Teaching Kitchen was recommended for him by his provider. He said just a few classes in, it is already paying dividends. “My wife does most of the shopping,” Peters said. “But when I am shopping by myself, I read labels, and am much more aware of the food I am putting in my body.”
Label reading is just one of the topics covered in the six session program along with proper planning, physical activity, eating out, eating at home, snacking and eating for a healthier life.
Coleman reiterates that healthy choices should become a lifestyle. “What I am teaching you here is a meal plan for life, not a diet.” In addition to stressing lifestyle changes, he spends time debunking food and nutrition myths while simultaneously cutting vegetables and frying chicken.
“One of the most common mistakes is that people underestimate what they intake. “If I asked each of you to come up and plate a half a cup of cooked beans, you would plate a full cup,” Coleman told the class.
The other big misnomer is that good food can’t taste good. Coleman shared a story about how he cooked a traditional Southwest breakfast for his family, and stealthily made it “healthy.” “I made breakfast tacos with soy chorizo for my family, and no one even knew it.”
In addition to diet, the class had lively discussions about the right amounts of physical activity. They are asked to log their activities and food choices and that data is added to the big data collector, also known as the scale.
Before each class, Veterans are required to weigh in, log it, and then receive feedback from program facilitators. Peters is happy with his progress. “I have lost six pounds so far,” Peters said proudly. “My goal is to get down to 185, but most importantly, to keep the diabetes at bay.” He attributes his early success to the class because it also helped him with portion control.
Coleman provided several other quick tips for the class to take with them:
- Don’t just pay attention to the main and side dishes. Condiments are also important because many contain high levels of sugar and salt, important for diabetic patients.
- If you qualify for senior specials, take advantage of them because they often come on an 8 inch plate (meaning the portions are smaller.)
- Keep your eye open for seasonal foods; they are cheaper and will have better flavor.
- Cut salt down significantly by rinsing canned vegetables off.
- Take advantage of coupons, but do not be tempted to buy something just because it is on sale.
- “Cook once, eat twice” is a tactic used to save prep time and keep you from eating less healthier options.
- Progress is not a constant. Your body will act differently, even if you are eating and exercising the same.
The Healthy Teaching Kitchen program runs three times a year, and participants must be referred by their providers. It is one of a few methods the South Texas VA is helping Veterans transition to a healthier lifestyle. Another program is the MOVE! Weight loss Program. If you are interested in either of these, ask your provider if you qualify.