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“Eighty percent of cardiovascular disease and stroke is preventable through healthy lifestyle,” said Shawna Garcia, senior corporate market director at the American Heart Association. “It’s just about making the right changes.”

Garcia pointed out that Oklahoma ranks at the bottom of the barrel for fruit and vegetable consumption. That fact, coupled with Mercy’s own healthy eating initiatives, led Mercy guest services director Charles Spencer to think up a way to excite Oklahomans about the prospect of choosing a healthier diet.

“We wanted to kick-start that conversation, that passion for making smarter decisions when buying and cooking food,” Spencer said. “We want to get them fired up. Part of eating healthier, for us, is to make it a buzzword. We want to make it popular to eat right. Being a food guy, I started thinking about how popular all the food shows and cooking competitions are. It clicked.”

right, Grilled chicken at Green and Grilled

They settled on the “Iron Chef”-esque cooking competition, unique to Oklahoma’s Start Eating Healthy Day, featuring chefs from Metro hospitals — including Integris Health, University of Oklahoma Medical Center, Deaconess and more. The 12 chefs faced off using a pantry stocked with plenty of fruits and veggies, as well as whole grains and similarly healthy ingredients, with twists coming in the form of cooking with no heat source and having to use a secret ingredient. And in a nod to the old adage, the organizers chose apples to promote a healthier diet and keep those doctors away.

Mercy’s own Sabrina Wagner took the prize with her pair of dishes — a watermelon gazpacho and a Waldorf salad — that wowed a judging panel that included Iguana Mexican Grill executive chef Ryan Parrott.

“It was very challenging,” Wagner said. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it, let alone win. My focus is on making healthy food, but it was great to show that I know something about making food taste good, too. It showed that I could make healthy food that people enjoy.”

In addition to its original purpose, organizers hoped the event would quell some lingering perceptions concerning the taste of hospital food.

“Hospital food isn’t what it used to be,” Garcia said with a laugh. “And eating healthy doesn’t have to be gross; it can be delicious.”

Garcia said eating a healthier diet doesn’t require you to cut out all of your favorite foods, but rather make a few tweaks here and there, namely cutting down on fats, increasing fruits and veggies, and favoring leaner proteins like salmon and skinless poultry.

“You can make any dish heart-healthy,” she said, “by just changing a few ingredients.”

Spencer intends on hosting the competition next year on Start Eating Healthy Day, which will take place the first Wednesday each November.

“We can make smarter choices every single step that we take,” he said. “Now they’ve seen what someone can do with those ingredients. We’ve dispelled the myth that eating healthy is more expensive, too hard and not tasty.”

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