Ray Spaulding is standing over a frying pan full of sliced green apples. He’s sautéing them in front of a cooking class at the Portland Veterans Affairs.
“I feel like I’m on the Martha Stewart show," he said
“You are!" said Jessica Mooney, a clinical dietitian at the VA, standing next to him.
Spaulding is 85 years-old. He served in the Air Force from 1948 to 1952.
“This is caramelizing!" he said
“Yeah, it’s going to be good,” Mooney replied.
Spaulding is making cooked apples sprinkled with a little bit of cinnamon.
Today’s class is about ways to make healthier desserts, like brownies made with cocoa, Splenda and pureed black beans — rather than flour and sugar.
Mooney, the VA dietitian, said this class is part of a series. Veterans cooked healthier breakfasts, dinners and snacks. She said they also learned about portion control and how to read nutritional labels.
Nearly 80 percent of veterans are either overweight or obese. Another quarter suffer from diabetes. Those numbers are higher than the national average for all Americans. Health workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs say many of the reasons for the higher rates stem from the time veterans spent in the military.
“The majority of our veterans have some type of health issue that could be managed through – or improved through diet and exercise," she said.
Spaulding said he's taking the course because he was hospitalized several times in the last few years before finally being diagnosed with diabetes.
"I have a better understanding about what's going into the food and the components of the food I'm eating and using in my cooking," he said. "I will be able to control things like my blood sugar, which is a real trial for me because I like sweets."
Another veteran in the class, Deeann Croteau, said she took the class in part to lose weight.
“I have diabetes and I also have a sciatic nerve pinch in my back and they keep telling me to lose weight," she said.
Spaulding and Croteau are among the 27 percent of veterans with diabetes -- more than twice the national average for all Americans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
And that’s on top of the nearly 80 percent of overweight and obese vets.
“There are a number of reasons," said Michele Goldschmidt, who is Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Program Manager at the Portland VA. “Food, addictively, works exactly the same neurons in the brain as other addictive substances such as alcohol, and drugs.”
Goldschmidt said veterans face unique challenges after their military experience.
“Homelessness, job challenges, PTSD, issues related to their war experiences," she said. "That adds up to using what could be considered to be a socially available and acceptable outlet. And eating is one of them.”
The VA is taking responsibility for solving a problem they say began in the military.
When they were in the service, most vets had the cooking done for them, so they never learned how to cook. And many of those who can cook are used to cooking for hundreds or thousands.
Beyond that, Mooney said, soldiers don’t get a lot of time to eat.
ldquo;It takes your stomach 20 minutes to tell your brain that you’re full," Mooney said. "So, if they’re eating quickly they could eat significantly more than if they enjoyed their meal. And that’s kind of what we’re doing in the cooking classes. We’re talking about sight, smell, how to create a plate that’s beautiful and also tastes good and is healthy.”
Since 2013 — when the Portland VA first offered a cooking class — about 150 veterans have enrolled. That’s hardly enough to curb an obesity epidemic.
But Goldschmidt said right now there isn’t enough funding to serve all of the Portland VA’s 65,000 primary care patients at 13 clinics.
“It would be nice to go from The Dalles to Newport to Bend where we have the rest of our clinics," Goldschmidt said. "If we were able to do that on a regular basis, there would be far more classes, but we don’t have enough registered dietitians.”
Back in the cooking class, Spaulding is already planning to sign up for an advanced class this winter. He reaches his hand into the pan of simmering apples, fishes one out and pops it in his mouth.
"Is it good?" Mooney asked.
"It’s wonderful. Want a bite?" Spaulding replied. "These apples are really amazing!”