Food as Medicine

The next time you fill a prescription, your doctor might send you to the farmers market or produce aisle rather than the pharmacy. Increasingly, physicians and medical professionals are practicing a discipline called “culinary medicine” and treating maladies like obesity, heart disease and diabetes through healthy eating rather than with drugs. 

Reaching beyond traditional nutrition programs, the culinary medicine practice teaches doctors and their patients not only what to eat, but how to prepare it. The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University is one of the pioneers in the field—starting its program in 2012 in partnership with Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts. Each class explores the effect of different diets on various diseases and how to prepare flavorful, satisfying meals and snacks.

First- and second-year medical students take a minimum of three classes integrated into their regular curriculum with the option to pursue the full culinary medicine elective by adding an additional five courses. Fourth-year medical students can further their experience by participating in a monthlong culinary rotation. All students get to put their learning to work by helping teach and run community classes for kids, families and seniors. “We want our students to talk the talk and walk the walk,” says Chef Leah Sarris, program director at Goldring. “We want to see that they know the information, can communicate it to patients and are also changing their own health habits.”

Sarris expected resistance in the beginning, but students have been open to making changes. One student was drinking two liters of Diet Coke every day and completely eschewed her soda habit after starting the program. “Students expect tofu and twigs and they are excited when the food tastes good,” says Sarris. “They realize they can make things that are pretty and flavorful with portion sizes that are big. They pass those personal lessons on to their patients. It helps that they have been through the same program.” After teaching for years at Johnson & Wales, Sarris was delighted to learn that medical students are kitchen naturals. “They learn knife skills faster than culinary students,” she says. “They are very meticulous.” 

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Enthusiasm for the program has caught on quickly, with approximately 15 percent of medical schools now offering the Goldring Culinary Medicine curriculum. Goldring has also released a certification program for practicing medical professionals. Through 12 continuing education modules, current doctors, nurses, pharmacists and dieticians can become certified culinary medicine specialists. “Interest has been higher than we anticipated,” says Sarris. “When schools are sometimes hesitant, if we can get them to visit our program, the perception changes. It’s a novel idea, teaching cooking classes to medical students. But it works.”

Despite the warm reception for the culinary medicine programs, barriers exist to wider adoption. Even when a program has a champion willing to change decades-old curricula, a commercial kitchen still has to be added to the mix in order to conduct the cooking classes. Many programs use existing kitchens or find partnerships (like the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio joining forces with the Culinary Institute of America), rather than shouldering an expensive capital campaign to build new facilities. 

Texas medical schools are strong supporters of the program. The University of North Texas Health Science Center was the first school in the state to offer the curriculum, and it’s been joined by the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Worth, the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio and soon, the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

The Houston program, which launches in the 2016 fall semester, is unique in Texas because it includes a teaching garden as well as a train-the-trainer program for dietetic, nursing and medical students. In preparing for the launch, the school offered a gardening course this spring as well as a weekly lunch-and-learn program. Dietetic interns harvested produce from the garden, prepared recipes for fellow students and faculty, and discussed the nutritional aspects of the dishes. “There is no other seed-to-plate program like ours in the state of Texas…the kitchen, the garden, the train-the-trainer aspect,” says Laura Moore, director of the dietetic internship program, who also attended culinary school before becoming a registered dietician. “In addition to the core nutritional information, we train the students on how to interview, assess and consult with patients in a simulation lab. We are focused on the behavioral component for our patients, as well as the treatment.”

This holistic approach to medicine—treating the patient beyond the prescription pad—promises big changes for doctors and patients alike. As culinary medicine expertise grows, expect to see more cooking classes offered through hospitals, wellness centers and medical schools in the community, and patients trading in pill bottles for vegetable peelers and spatulas. 

 

Visit culinarymedicinecertified.com for more information.

by Kristi Willis