In February 2020, while running through the Atlanta airport to catch a flight, Steve Johnson noticed a severe pain in his calf.

“I had 22 minutes to get between the gates in Terminal A and Terminal D,” Johnson said. “I made it, but I had some challenges in the process.”

The New Era, Michigan, resident journeys extensively for his job, so he’s well accustomed to the rigors of travel. But as he boarded this particular flight and took his seat, he couldn’t ignore the leg pain.

Later, he met with a doctor.

“’You’re going to be down for at least six weeks’—that’s what the orthopedic surgeon said,” Johnson said. “And he was right almost to the day.

“My weight reached 250 pounds and I wasn’t able to work it off with exercise. I was literally down for six weeks with the calf injury.”

COVID-19 restrictions went into effect shortly after his injury, further limiting his ability to stay active.

“I had some challenges during COVID, like everybody,” he said. “I developed bad habits over time. I’ve always been overweight, but I hadn’t been in the Class 1 obesity category before.”

With the leg injury, he didn’t like where things were headed. He knew that if he wanted to keep his weight in check, he’d have to do it by way of diet.

So he enrolled in a culinary medicine cooking class program.

Learning the steps

Johnson, 49, likes to cook.

When he saw information about a culinary medicine cooking class program offered through Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital, where he works part time as a pharmacist, he grew intrigued.

“I took it the first time because it looked like a neat class and I wanted to learn healthier cooking,” Johnson said. “I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but growing up we rarely ate healthy.”

He took the program in the fall of 2020, but missed a class due to travel. He took the program again in the spring of 2021.

In addition to working part time at Spectrum Health Ludington and Gerber Memorial Hospitals, Johnson works full time for a pharmacy management company.

The spring and fall classes were offered virtually, with participants cooking at home during each class. They learned new skills and used ingredients provided through a grant from the local health department.

A registered dietitian and culinary medicine chef led each class, operating from the Spectrum Health Lifestyle Medicine teaching kitchen at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market.

“I absolutely loved it,” Johnson said. “Instead of watching somebody cook in a test kitchen, it teaches you to do all the steps for yourself.”

Many of the class participants experience positive results from the program, said chef Elizabeth Suvedi, manager of the Spectrum Health culinary medicine program.

“It’s pretty cool to hear the participant’s feedback,” Suvedi said. “From feeling more confident with cooking, to understanding the health benefits of eating healthier, it is inspiring to hear stories such as Steve’s.”

The program is also bringing people together.

“We get a lot of feedback that people also enjoy quality family time, being together and the bonding that happens when you’re in the kitchen,” Suvedi said. “Not only the social time, but the cooking skills and health benefits that result for the entire family.”

Positive results

The lifestyle changes—eating right, exercising again—has Johnson feeling great.

“It changes your relationship with food,” he said. “I’ve lost 30 pounds, which is great. And I haven’t really had to give up anything to do that, which is also great.”

At each cooking session, a registered dietitian provides practical information on vital nutrients, portion control, colorful plates and reading nutrition labels.

“The focus is on optimal health and ensuring what you’re eating are things that will help your overall health,” Suvedi said. “It’s being mindful about staying away from processed foods, added sugars, fried foods and red or processed meats.

“It’s learning how to cook with less oil and to incorporate more fruits, vegetables and whole grains into your diet – in a way that’s also delicious.”

Class participants get recipe cards to help them make a variety of healthy dishes.

“There’s no excuse not to put the material into practice,” Johnson said. “Having the recipe cards gives you a quick and easy guide to the program and helps you remember some of your favorite things.”

Top on his list? Bell Pepper and Chicken Skillet.

“This is by far the most awesome recipe from the program,” he said. “It uses so little chicken, but it fills you up. This recipe tastes fantastic. It creates enough to literally feed an army.”

He passed the recipe along to his mom, who now cooks it about once a week.

“Just from me taking the program and sharing the recipe, I think six different people make this dish now and absolutely love it,” Johnson said. “So it has a wide reach in terms of making the community healthier.”

Working ahead

Originally from East Lansing, Johnson lives on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan—a home previously used as a vacation home by his parents. He often takes an early morning walk along the beach to start his day.

“Every morning I try to walk between two and three miles,” Johnson said. “Exercise is paramount—and not getting injured again is paramount.”

Johnson added an exercise room onto his garage to make fitness a priority.

“I haven’t weighed this little since my freshman year of college,” he said. “The goal for me is overall health, because the weight impacts your knees, it impacts your cardiovascular health. And so if I want to enjoy a healthy retirement, which I do, then it’s important to act now and make some changes so I can.”

He’s now at 219 pounds. His goal is to reach the overweight category versus the obese category, which for him would be 215 pounds.

“I just missed it by a hair,” he said of his last official weigh-in.

Johnson likes to work ahead, prepping meals and sometimes freezing them for quick and easy cooking later to accommodate his busy schedule.

“It’s proof that you can eat and do things that are healthy with a little planning,” he said. “The program helps you to make better choices that are still tasty and delicious.”

Johnson has become an advocate for the culinary medicine cooking class program.

“It’s a phenomenal way to practice skills you already know, most likely, but you’ll pick up a few new things,” he said. “It’s a series of small changes that help you make a big difference in your overall health. The culinary medicine team helps you put all of that together.”