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Can Chefs Aid Fight Against Disease?

Health experts say changing your eating habits is one way to avoid becoming overweight or obese.

But anyone who has tried a new diet knows it can be really tough -- even when you're facing serious health consequences. So some people are trying out free cooking classes with a professional chef to help make better choices about what they eat.

Chef Mabel Guzman of Orlando spends most of her time running her own catering company and training professional chefs.  But once a month, she teaches healthy cooking classes at the Humana Guidance Centersin Zephyrhills and Kissimmee.

If you've ever watched a cooking show on TV, you know the trademark close-ups that show off complicated knife skills. You won't find that in Guzman's class.

 "I try to make everything easy, that they can understand and make at home,” Guzman said. “If you don't have experience with the knife, you can use the processor, and the flavor is going to be the same. You don't have to be a chef to cook something delicious at home."

These cooking classes – and other wellness activities at the center – are free and open to the public, not just those who have health insurance through Humana.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Lottie Watts / WUSF News
The Florida Channel
Participants in a healthy cooking class with Chef Mabel Guzman

At a September class in Zephyrhills, she shared recipes for two different salads with about two dozen students. They watched her mix a huge stainless steel bowl full of shredded cabbage, green apples and papaya, and they asked questions about ingredients that are new or unfamiliar to them, such as faro.

“It's an Italian grain. It's 7 grams of protein. So it's like brown rice but it's higher in protein,” Guzman explained. “They maintain your level of sugar ... more stable. If you have a problem with the sugar, you can use that like a carb. It's better than rice or brown rice.”

Guzman encourages the students to be flexible.

"You don't have to use the (processed, pre-made) product that you have in the market,” Guzman said. “You can make at home with low sodium, low fat and that stuff so it's the healthy way to use the kitchen."

Across the country, more than a third of adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Environment and behavior are some factors trigging overweight and obesity.

Dr. Thomas Robison, a family physician who works for Bay Care Medical Group in St. Petersburg, said it can be difficult to eat right and exercise.

"I think the real nuts and bolts of staying healthy are hard. I mean I have patients who come and said, uh, no I'm not gonna watch my diet, I'm not gonna exercise, you know, just give me some pills." - Dr. Thomas Robison

"I think the real nuts and bolts of staying healthy are hard,” Robison said. “I mean I have patients who come and said, uh, no I'm not gonna watch my diet, I'm not gonna exercise, you know, just give me some pills."

Jean Nichols of Zephyrhills doesn't fit that patient profile.

"You may not live to be 95, but it's nice to feel strong and healthy and I ride my bicycle every day,” said Nichols, who started coming to the healthy cooking classes about eight months ago.

"I think the fact that she talks about those things makes us all more health conscious, you know we look at labels and try not to get too much salt, that's the main thing for me, because I take a blood pressure pill, and I know I don't want to have to take a stronger one."

--Health News Florida is part of WUSF Public Media. Contact Lottie Watts at 813-974-8705 (desk) or e-mail at For more health news, visit

Lottie Watts covers health and health policy for Health News Florida, now a part of WUSF Public Media. She also produces Florida Matters, WUSF's weekly public affairs show.