What do I eat? That is a question most people ask themselves at least once a day. Imagine getting a prescription from your physician and vetted by a nutritionist to cook certain foods at home. The prescription is tailored to your personal needs, and your care team has received training as health coaches to help you successfully implement this new plan. This is culinary medicine.
WHAT IS CULINARY MEDICINE?
The idea of food as a tool for health is not necessarily new. However, this approach to education empowers individuals of all ages and experiences to overcome common barriers to healthful eating, and is a refreshing view of medicine. As Dr. John La Puma describes in ChefMD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine, culinary medicine is a new evidence-based field that blends the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine.
Culinary medicine is an emerging field: it is a new educational and nutritional approach to improving eating behaviors, focusing on skills such as food shopping, storage, and meal preparation.
As I made my grocery list this week, I recalled a tip from a talk called “What to Eat: The Emerging Field of Culinary Medicine” I went to a couple of weeks ago – purchase ingredients which you can prepare once, and use multiple ways. Instead of picking up a ready-to-eat meal, I challenged myself to apply this principle while selecting ingredients for meals I might enjoy.
The salad pictured uses cucumber dill dressing that can go on a tortilla wrap, serve as a carrot stick dip, or dress a simple cucumber, tomato, and herb salad. The raw, half-salted almonds season and add crunch and dimension, but are tasty as a snack with fruits or cheese as well. The heirloom tomatoes would also be nice as a snack alone, or cooked up with seasoned ground turkey. I cooked double the amount of chicken, marinated it in pineapple juice, and can now enjoy it with rice, pasta, or a lettuce wrap for another meal. The pineapple juice also refreshed my glass of seltzer. I may have gotten one week of meals ready, but why do we need Culinary Medicine?
WHY DO WE NEED CULINARY MEDICINE?
What we eat affects our health and wellbeing. Some of that is also influenced by the source and type of food consumed. Numerous studies point out that preparing food at home is associated with a healthier diet and greater fruit and vegetable intake. Yet, recent findings suggest that more Americans are eating away from home (a 42% increase) and preparing food at home less (a 25% decrease). The numbers don’t lie: a national survey showed that home cooking at dinner results in the consumption of fewer calories on average.
Consider: when you eat at home, you may be less likely to have an appetizer, dessert, or drink than while eating out. While many consumers do know what they should eat more of, the challenges of shopping on a budget, time constraints, desire to feel satisfied, access to evidence-based personal nutrition guidance, and avoiding food waste are all real potential barriers. Culinary medicine celebrates the importance of real food, and seeks to empower people and their doctors to cook more – for their health.
Improving Physician Education
Educating incoming clinicians about nutrition stands to be a powerful tool to reach many: physicians may be the first responders to identify when culinary medicine is a suitable approach to help a patient. Somewhat surprisingly, it is only in recent years that the newest inductees into the medical field receive options for focused training in nutrition – elective programs may provide a crash course, such as the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives program founded by David Eisenberg, however, there is much more remaining to be done. Studies show that medical school graduates who go on to a variety of disciplines report receiving insufficient nutrition education during medical school.
Doctors need to first be brought up to speed to understand the barriers for their patients to cooking healthy meals, and then learn how to best help patients to achieve their personal nutrition goals that are aligned with health assessments. Coaching is key to the success of culinary medicine, adding dimensions of support and accountability to help people make positive behavioral changes in what they eat. Not just for patients, culinary medicine is a tool for anyone, bridging nutrition recommendations and practical implementation in the kitchen. Anyone who wishes to improve their eating habits can learn to cook healthier meals at home.
A RECIPE FOR GOOD HEALTH
Meet physician-chef, Dr. Rani Polak, the founding director of the CHEF (Culinary Health Education Fundamentals) coaching program at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and physician at the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The program provides a means for clients to meet with a coach weekly for 12 weeks via Skype or phone, and also offers professional certifications to doctors, health professionals, and health coaches to become certified to include culinary goals in their work. Dr. Polak shared the emerging field of Culinary Medicine with a packed room of clinicians, researchers, and a wide online audience watching the LIVE stream, which you can view here. Food nourishes and can heal, but there are numerous possible barriers standing between a hungry consumer and her next nourishing meal.
Recipe for Good Health = Joy of Cooking + Science of Medicine
As quoted in an article in Scientific American, Dr. Polak’s vision for chef coaching and culinary medicine is that these would be a part of standard patient care, engaging multiple agents of care: “doctors would refer a patient to a nutritionist, send him or her to a credentialed chef coach who in turn would work with the patient to develop the real-world skills needed to easily follow the diet and improve the patient’s specific self-care.” There are plenty of resources – perhaps an overwhelming amount – of recipes, tips, tools, mobile applications and planners available and many consumers are confused. Some of these resources are informed by personal experience, some by validated nutrition studies, and now Culinary Medicine offers a fresh take on food as medicine by addressing some of the key practical barriers to healthful eating.
DATA: COMING SOON
If you are wondering how effective coaching physicians is, stay tuned – the CHEF Coaching program has just acquired funding to evaluate this telemedicine approach in the first 3-year multicenter randomized controlled study of culinary medicine. Some remaining questions are whether this approach could help a broad population. For instance, people with low-income status may not have tools such as a blender on hand or internet access at home to watch the resource videos. Some recipes may not have broad appeal for all ages of home chefs – from children to elders – and also should aim to incorporate cultural sensitivity. There is a lot to learn, but for now, Culinary Medicine is an exciting new approach in nutrition with a growing library of helpful resources.
Do you have cravings for sweets? Instead of bee-lining to the pint of ice cream, there are other easy options. During Dr. Polak’s talk, the audience watched a short recipe video demonstrating the preparation of a blended banana frozen dessert, topped with frozen grape chips and fresh mint. After watching it, most of the people in the room agreed that they could probably execute the recipe at home. This video is available from a new free library from the American College of Preventive Medicine. Each one shows how a physician-chef prepares a simple, affordable, and nutritious ingredient, such as lentils, and incorporates them into different meals.
Learn more about Culinary Medicine
There are about 30 institutions around the country teaching Culinary Medicine. If you are a clinician interested in receiving training in culinary medicine, you can enroll in physician-centered programs found in this summary of health-related culinary education programs, or learn more at the links below.
- ACPM/ACLM Culinary Medicine Module – with recipes and videos
- Clinician CHEF Coaching – for health professionals and patients
- Certified Culinary Medicine Specialist – certification for health professionals
- Culinary RX – a physician-prescribed whole food, plant-based course for patients