The future of medicine is food

Med school has changed.
Med school has changed.
Image: Tulane University
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In between anatomy and biochemistry, medical students in the US are learning how to sauté, simmer and season healthy, homemade meals.

Since 2012, first and second year students at Tulane University School of Medicine in Louisiana 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 med schools have now licensed the center’s curriculum, as have two non-medical schools, the Children’s Hospital San Antonio-Sky Lakes Residency Program and the Nursing School at Northwest Arkansas Community College. In fact, about 10% of America’s medical schools are teaching their students how to cook with Tulane’s program, Tim Harlan, who leads Tulane’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, told the James Beard Foundation conference last month. 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, says Harlan, who’s both a chef and a doctor. As he says in the video below: “We’re not talking about nutrition, we’re talking about food.”

“We translate the preponderance of dietary evidence,” which Harlan told Quartz supports the oft-praised Mediterranean diet, “for the American kitchen.” That includes consideration of cost as well as nutritional value—diet-related illnesses like obesity are often linked to low income communities, including the New Orleans community that Tulane’s kitchen also serves. This also works out well for training would-be doctors, says Harlan, who are usually on a stringent budget themselves.

The cooking classes are supplemented with lectures, reading and team-based problem solving as well, and though coursework begins broadly for first and second year students—with an overview of the Mediterranean diet and basic knife handling skills included in the first “module”—Harlan says they are developing about 30 more modules for third and fourth year students. Those will focus on specific ailments like congestive heart failure, HIV and celiac disease.

Fans of the program, including both doctors and chefs, are hoping it will be part of a major shift in the way doctors communicate with their patients about nutrition, especially amid rising rates of obesity and other diet-related illnesses. Currently less than half of American primary care physicians offer their patients specific guidance on diet, physical activity or weight control, a 2011 study found. ”The fact that doctors are now learning to cook is like a revolution,” said Sam Kass, a former White House chef and senior nutrition policy advisor, at the James Beard conference.

While it’s still early days for the Tulane program, two separate studies have shown its effectiveness—for both the patients and med students alike. (Both studies included authors from the Goldring Center.) The first, which looked at patients with Type 2 Diabetes, found, for example, that those that who participated in the program saw a major drop in total cholesterol, while those who did not participate saw an increase. The second found that medical students also benefited: They not only thought nutrition advice was important for their patients, but for themselves, too. By the second year, the participating med students were eating significantly more fruits and vegetables than they had previously.

Harlan expects a sea change to take place in the way doctors treat chronic illness—and the way insurance charges for it.  At the conference, Kass described a future where doctors write recipes as prescriptions and insurance companies treat food as a reimbursable expense. (There is, of course, a strong economic argument in favor of a prevention-based approach to health.) Harlan predicts that care plans will eventually include menu planning, recipes and maybe even programming to get the ingredients delivered to patients. ”Call me up in ten years and let’s see if that’s true.”