Cooking Up Culinary Medicine

Fewer than a quarter of doctors say they’ve had sufficient training to provide nutritional advice to their patients, according to recent polls. But that’s beginning to change as more and more medical students and clinicians in the US are learning how to sauté, simmer and season healthy, homemade meals.

Since 2012, students at Tulane University School of Medicine in Louisiana aren’t just learning about nutrition they have been learning how to cook. Since the program launched, Tulane has built the country’s first med school-affiliated teaching kitchen and become the first medical school to count a chef as a full-time instructor.

Sixteen medical schools have now licensed the center’s curriculum, as have two non-medical schools. It also offers continuing medical education programs with a certification for culinary medicine, for doctors, physicians assistants, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, and registered dietitians.

The program, developed with culinary school Johnson & Wales, helps doctors give real health advice to their patients. Dr. Timothy Harlan, who leads Tulane’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, says the program isn’t just about helping students understand nutrition. The focus is on practical talk about food. Harlan wants Tulane-educated doctors to be able to teach their patients everyday skills in how to cook, what to cook, and why.

“Physicians talk about nutrition and diet all the time, but they don’t talk about it in a way that communicates change to their patients,” Harlan says, in a video produced by the school.

Students learn to make the most of low-cost ingredients, so they can cater to low-income communities. The school also provides cooking classes to the public.

“We know from the literature that when people go home and start cooking from real ingredients for themselves that their health improves,” Harlan says. “We also know that they don’t really know how to do that.”

Cheryl Spann took part in the community cooking class, and says she’s learned what good carbs are and how to cut back on sugar.

“My health is getting so much better now,” Spann says in the school’s video. “And I do believe that when I see my primary care physician in the next month, I will no longer be taking hypertensive medicine and I will no longer be taking diabetes medicine.”

Harlan hopes to see a change take place in the way doctors treat chronic illness and the way insurance charges for it. Are care plans that will include meal planning, recipes and maybe even programming to get the ingredients delivered to patients in the future?

That remains to be seen for this young program, but in the meantime, eat your veggies.