As Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, spoke, “Let food be thy medicine.” However, most medical schools in the United States do not adequately teach nutrition. Several programs, including at Tulane University, are addressing this shortcoming by including cooking classes in their curriculum. The hope is that by teaching future doctors how to cook delicious and healthy meals, they will pass that knowledge on to their patients, improving long-term health.
The rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases are increasing throughout the world according to “Prediabetes: A Worldwide Epidemic.” The Center for Disease Control reports that nearly half of all deaths in the United States are due to heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes. Entire scientific journals, such as Nutrition and Health, Diabetes, and the Journal of Nutrition, are devoted to examining the relationships between nutrition and health. Research has shown that nutrition is one of the leading causes of and significantly affects the management of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and aging-related diseases.
There is no clear correlation between policy recommendations and nutrition choices. For example, a study that provided nutrition information to adults at fast-food chains found that simply providing information did not alter consumer choices. Coaching has consistently proven effective at changing eating habits, especially when tailored to an individual’s lifestyle and medical history. Many see using doctors as nutrition coaches as a natural extension of a physician’s duties and a valuable opportunity for one-on-one intervention. However, a National Institute of Health survey revealed that a majority of primary care physicians do not give diet advice. According to polls reported by the Washington Post, less than 25 percent of doctors feel they are informed enough regarding nutrition to discuss it knowledgeably.
Tulane’s program was developed in 2014 to better instruct medical students in nutrition. According to their website, “Through hands-on cooking classes, medical students and physicians learn the practical aspects of lifestyle change necessary to help them guide their patients to healthier choices.”
The National Academy of Sciences recommends 25 hours of nutrition instruction for medical students, whereas the Tulane course requires 53 hours of culinary classes, 53 hours clinical care teaching, and 53 hours learning nutritional counseling strategies in lifestyle modification. Researchers at Tulane examined the effectiveness of the program and found improvements to the lifestyle of medical participants and significant health benefits to diabetic patients, including improved HbA1c, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.
To date, 28 other medical schools, two residency programs, and two nursing schools have adapted the Tulane curriculum. Dartmouth, the University of Chicago, the University of Massachusetts, and others have started similar programs within their medical schools. Harvard University partnered with the Culinary Institute of America to offer week-long workshops that have demonstrated improvements in attendees’ ability to advise patients as well as ameliorating their lifestyle, including cooking more at home, making healthier food choices like whole grains and nuts, and heightened awareness of calorie consumption.
Personally taking culinary classes can improve people’s diets without making a trip to the doctor. Programs in Chicago improve nutrition knowledge and vegetable consumption in children. Community kitchens in Peru taught adolescents and improved their diets. Similar kitchens in Canada have had a similar effect of improving lifestyles and education within several communities. In general, public health researchers find that cooking at home can significantly improve health when the knowledge of good nutrition is applied. For some of the Tulane program’s recipes, click here.