By Melissa Ludwig

For San Antonio’s Dina Lopez, big portions are a family tradition.

When she first married her husband, she served him a plate piled with chicken legs and thighs, rice, beans and two tortillas. When he told her he couldn’t eat it all, she gave him the traditional mama bear retort – “Eat!”

“I was in the mentality that that’s what you need,” said Lopez, a 36-year-old mother of four.

Dina Lopez cooking
Alison Spangler and Dina Lopez of San Antonio, and Vanessa Moctezuma of Santa Rosa, get a healthy cooking lesson from H-E-B dietitians at the Culinary Institute of America.

In America, that mentality has sown an epidemic of obesity that threatens to shorten the lifespan of children and strain a healthcare system already sweating under the burden of an aging populace, Medicaid cuts and nursing shortages. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 36 percent of U.S. adults are now obese; more disturbing, 17 percent of children are obese, a figure that has tripled since 1980.

Lopez and her family are among those Americans teetering on the edge of serious health consequences.

At 5’2 and 257 pounds, Lopez has high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Her 11-year-old daughter weighs nearly 200 pounds, is pre-diabetic and has been bullied at school.

“My husband and I know that things need to change, and they need to change now,” Lopez said.

H-E-B wants to help.

This past fall, the company launched “Healthy at H-E-B” initiative to inspire Texans to adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle through special offers on healthy food, fitness groups, events and competitions.

A signature piece of the initiative is the Slim Down Showdown, a 16-week health contest that offers Texans a chance to win a $10,000 grand prize or a $5,000 “fan favorite” award. H-E-B started the contest with its own employees a couple of years ago and extended it to the community for the first time this year.

Lopez was chosen as one of 25 contestants from a pool of 550 applicants.

Portland contestant Nadia Rivas of Portland gets down at a Zumba class at Gold’s Gym.
Nadia Rivas of Portland gets down at a Gold’s Gym Zumba class.

Last week, the contest kicked off with a four-and-a-half day wellness seminar at the Hilton Palacio Del Rio with medical screenings by Methodist Healthcare, experts from Cooper Wellness in Dallas, Zumba classes at Gold’s Gym and a healthy cooking demonstration by H-E-B dietitians at the Culinary Institute of America.

Contestants returned home this week armed with meal plans, fitness goals and a membership to Gold’s Gym. Health coaches will call them weekly over the next four months to help them stay on track. Winners will be announced Oct. 7 at a Healthy at H-E-B “Taste of Health” food festival held in conjunction with Siclovia.

I have had the privilege of helping publicize the Slim Down Showdown on behalf of H-E-B, and getting to know each of the 25 contestants.

I admire their bravery.

This is not just a weight loss contest. A large part of the scoring rests in online community engagement. Contestants must blog regularly about their progress, garnering points for the number of likes, shares and comments. H-E-B hopes that by sharing their journey, the contestants will inspire others, acting as catalysts for change in their families and communities.

On the whole, these folks are not a bunch of showboats. They are teachers, mothers, fathers, and social workers who have agreed to open up a very personal struggle for the world to see.

It’s a big step for someone like Michael Mercado, who spent most of his life in denial of his weight problem.

“As a male, you don’t really discuss those things,” said Mercado, a 29-year-old social worker at Haven for Hope. “You are too macho to admit, ‘I am not happy in my own skin.’”

Micahel Mercado cooking pineapples
San Antonio contestant Michael Mercado grills pineapple during a healthy cooking demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America.

The contestants say they are most excited to learn about nutrition—how to read food labels, how to make healthy meals that taste good, how to serve appropriate portions.

Nadia Rivas, a contestant from Portland, near Corpus Christi, said the produce aisle vexes her. She knows Swiss chard is healthy, but has no idea how to prepare it.

“Am I just supposed to chomp on this?” Rivas said. “I am not a world class cook, but I think if I can get my children started now liking things, opening their palettes to good culinary taste, that would benefit them.”

Scoff away, urban foodies. But try to step out of your bubble for a minute.

Cooking just isn’t everybody’s thing. People work hard, family schedules are chaotic and eating out is a fallback for folks who don’t spend their day fantasizing about the espresso-rubbed venison they plan on making for dinner. And if you don’t live in hipster central, most of your dining options consist of cheap, highly-processed food that’s heavy on calories and light on nutrition.

It’s easy to see how we got here, much harder to dig our way out. Given the options, people who truly want to eat healthy must make the effort to prepare more meals at home.

Which brings us back to H-E-B.

I think it goes without saying that H-E-B wants people to shop for food at its stores. But this contest is not a gimmick to get customers in the door. Seriously, we all already shop at H-E-B.

What H-E-B wants is for Texans to walk into their stores and make healthier choices, for themselves, for their families, for the whole state. When people start doing that, the food revolution will be upon us.

It’s already upon us, and the Slim Down Showdown is proof that people are hungry, (pardon the pun) for change.

As Mercado puts it, “Education is key. Knowledge is power.”

Photos courtesy of H-E-B

A former education reporter at the San Antonio Express-News, Melissa Ludwig works as a senior account supervisor at the DeBerry Group, where she manages public relations for H-E-B’s education and health initiatives. She also fronts the Melissa Ludwig Band.  You can follow Ludwig on Facebook.

Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...