There is growing recognition that solving the obesity epidemic and its downstream health consequences depends on preventative efforts at the individual, community and public health level. Health professionals are on the frontline of assessing and advising patients on nutrition and weight; however only 27% of medical schools teach the recommended 25 hours of nutrition, and fewer than 14% of practicing physicians believe they were adequately trained in nutritional counseling. Other integrative disciplines, such as naturopathic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine, have a stronger focus on the healing power of food, but may be limited in patient behavior change when patients lack the confidence, skills or motivation to change their diet. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, surveys reveal that over 50% of respondents said they cook more than before the pandemic, and there is increased Interest in online cooking tutorials and food blogs. While it is likely people will maintain this accentuated focus on diet, they still need guidance from medical professionals to help them make the right choices for their long-term wellbeing. Furthermore, recent events have highlighted disparities in health and care access, and the need for interventions that can address root causes of health disparities such as practical, affordable and actionable nutrition changes.
In 2016 a partnership between the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University (OCIM) and the non-profit organization Common Threads (CT) led to the creation of a culinary medicine course for health professionals that included meaningful community impact. The collaboration was, and continues to be, truly successful because of a shared passion and commitment to the reduction of chronic disease through cooking and nutrition education. The original Cooking Up Health (CUH) curriculum is designed to teach learners in medicine and allied and complementary health sciences through the lens of culinary medicine and community health. Through this course, participants learn basic culinary skills, steps to create nutritious meals, relationships between food, health, and disease, and cultural competencies around nutrition. The participants also practice health coaching and teaching. Our data shows that over the course of the training students showed statistically significant increased confidence in nutrition and obesity counseling and improved attitudes about the importance of nutrition counseling in patient care. Moreover, students showed increases in their own cooking confidence, increased intake of vegetables and fruits and decreased meat consumption.
The course was re-envisioned in a virtual format in 2020 due to the pandemic. The shift to virtual culinary medicine may increase accessibility for health professional schools without expertise or resources to conduct on site. Additionally, lessons learned in the conversion to virtual provides valuable information on new ways health professionals can include culinary medicine in patient interactions whether in person or virtual, in the context of individual or group visits.
For health professionals who ardently believe in the power of nutrition to transform health, culinary medicine provides practical tools to help learners, from patients to students to communities, put recommendations into action.
- Distinguish between Teaching Kitchens and Culinary Medicine, and their respective roles in nutrition education.
- Recognize the link between diet quality and health, and the related role of the health professional.
- Discuss current gaps in nutrition education in health professional training, and potential solutions.
- Describe approaches for using culinary medicine in the context of patient care.