AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Nearly 80 percent of veterans who use VA services are either overweight or obese. Another quarter suffer from diabetes. Health workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs say many of the reasons for the higher rates stem from the time veterans spend in the military not cooking for themselves. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports.
CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Standing over a frying pan full of sliced green apples is Ray Spaulding. He's sauteing them in front of a cooking class at the Portland VA.
RAY SPAULDING: I feel like I'm on the Martha Stewart show.
JESSICA MOONEY: You are.
WILSON: Spaulding is 85 years old. He served in the Air Force from 1948 to 1952. Standing next to him is Jessica Mooney, clinical dietitian at the VA.
SPAULDING: This is caramelizing.
MOONEY: Yeah, it's going to be good.
WILSON: Spaulding's 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, other than flour and sugar. Mooney, the VA dietician, says the class is part of a series. Veterans learn to cook healthier breakfasts, dinners and snacks. She says they also learned about portion control and how to read nutritional labels.
MOONEY: So majority of our veterans have some type of health issue that could be managed through, or improved through, diet and exercise.
WILSON: Spaulding says he's taking the course because he was hospitalized several times in the last few years before finally being diagnosed with diabetes. He says the class has given him a better understanding about what's going into the food he's eating and cooking.
SPAULDING: I will be able to control things like my blood sugar, which is a real trial for me because I like sweets.
DEEANN CROTEAU: I have diabetes, and I also have a sciatic nerve pinch in my back. And they keep telling me I need to lose weight.
WILSON: Deeann Croteau served in the Army in the mid-1980s. She's finding some success in the class.
CROTEAU: In this past 12 weeks, I've lost almost 10 pounds.
WILSON: Spaulding and Croteau are among the 25 percent of veterans who use the VA health care and have diabetes. And that's on top of the nearly 80 percent who are overweight and obese. Both those figures are higher for vets than the general population.
MICHELE GOLDSCHMIDT: There are a number of reasons.
WILSON: Michele Goldschmidt heads up health promotion efforts at the Portland VA.
GOLDSCHMIDT: Food, addictively, works exactly the same neurons in the brain as other addictive substances such as alcohol and drugs.
WILSON: Goldschmidt says some veterans face significant challenges after their military experience.
GOLDSCHMIDT: Homelessness, job challenges, PTSD, issues related to their war experiences - that adds up to using what could be considered to be a socially available and acceptable outlet. And eating is one of them.
WILSON: 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 some never learned how. And many of those who can cook are used to cooking for hundreds or thousands. Back in the cooking class, Ray Spaulding reaches his hand into the pan of simmering apples, fishes one out and pops it in his mouth.
SPAULDING: The apples really are amazing.
WILSON: Since 2013, about 150 veterans have taken the cooking class. That's small compared to the more than 95,000 vets served by the Portland VA in 2015. But compared to other medical procedures and treatments, eating healthy and promoting exercise is a less invasive and less expensive way to fight obesity and diabetes. For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.