Cooking is just what the doctor ordered

Last year, I visited my brother in Rhode Island at Johnson & Wales University. We took a culinary school class together learning about the fundamentals of Italian and German cuisine. What were two medical students doing in culinary school?

As a fourth-year medical student, I learn the science and art of caring for the body and mind. Unfortunately, the majority of patients are plagued by ailments secondary to chronic preventable diseases like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and obesity. For better or worse, I now often expect that this is the baseline health status for my patients. And even worse, I feel discouraged rather than encouraged by our ability to provide effective contextualized counseling to patients on how to manage their hypertension, diabetes, and weight.

I believe that one of the fundamentals to treating our bodies starts with returning to the basics of cooking. Cooking can empower communities to transform their lifestyle behaviors by reducing added sugars, fat, and salt while simultaneously providing a new creative skill.

Sadly, medical school does not adequately teach students about nutrition education. 71 percent of recently graduated medical students report being inadequately trained in nutrition counseling. My medical school decided to cut its nutrition education program from our curriculum due to time constraints. What does this say about our medical profession?

Future physicians are becoming increasingly less trained in managing obesity and nutrition-associated chronic diseases. One team of health care professionals from the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine (GCCM) at Tulane University is trying to change this pattern. Dr. Dominique Monlezun and colleagues conducted a cohort study called the Cooking for Health Optimization with Patients (CHOP) for 84 medical students. They examined the benefits of a cooking and nutrition education elective over traditional clinical education on preventive medicine.

Dr. Monlezun and his team found a 72 percent improvement in overall competencies in nutrition education in diabetes diet, obesity weight loss, exercise, alcohol, calories, eating disorders, and other domains. In addition, student attitudes towards providing patients with nutrition counseling and the belief that physician counseling can enhance patients’ diets improved by over 80 percent.

The cooking and nutrition elective has potential positive impacts on the health care system and communities. GCCM supports the Affordable Care Act’s comparative effectiveness research improvement initiatives to encourage higher quality and lower cost health care through preventive medicine. Elective-trained medical students and the GCCM program provided over 3,000 class hours for 409 community members from food desert and low-income areas. In a pilot randomized controlled trial of 27 patients, they found that medical school-based teaching kitchen classes were able to improve both diastolic blood pressure and cholesterol of type 2 diabetic patients.

How can we advise our patients to change their diets if our future physicians are not trained in nutrition counseling? Cooking can be a vital means for giving patients a lifelong tool to take control of their health. Rather than demonizing food, our society would benefit from creating a culture and community around cooking healthfully and learning how food can sustain our bodies for a lifetime. Cooking is just what the doctor ordered.

Diane Dao is a medical student.

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