Medical schools are starting to incorporate hands-on courses for their students that teach them how to cook healthily.

This is part of a growing body of research suggesting that simply learning to cook could lead to improvements in dietary intake. This comes with important implications for public health interventions that aim to prevent growing problems and its associated lifestyle diseases.

The aim of the course is to teach future clinicians how to cook healthy food, so that they will be able to counsel their patients on nutrition and diet effectively in the future.

"Physicians talk about nutrition and diet all the time, but they don't talk about it in a way that communicates change to their patients," said Harlan, executive director of the Goldring Centre for Culinary Medicine and the assistant dean for clinical services at Tulane University School of Medicine.

Cooking teaches medical students much more than recipes

Most medical schools currently do not have a cohesive approach that helps students to translate their basic science education into practical patient advice and care.

Currently, many healthcare professionals in training and in practice advise patients to stop eating a variety of foods, even if they may have personal or cultural significance; they also do not help them to figure out what and how to eat differently.

Despite the fact that chronic disease practice guidelines uniformly call for lifestyle change as first-line therapy, less than one in four physicians feel that they are sufficiently trained to counsel patients over making the necessary changes.

“Unfortunately, we don’t and have not traditionally given our medical students a great deal of information on how they can have a dialogue with their patients about food, diet, and nutrition,” says Harlan.

Studies also show that physicians who possess healthy habits are more likely to counsel patients on those habits; hence, teaching kitchens could be the perfect, hands-on medium to help doctors to learn more about food.

Le Cordon Bleu chef-doctor teams up with other physicians

Michelle Hauser, one of the course developers, is a former Le Cordon Bleu chef. She is also currently an internal medicine-primary care attending for Stanford residents and a postdoctoral researcher at the Stanford Prevention Research Centre.

To launch the class , she teamed up with Stanford paediatrics instructor Maya Adam, nutrition researcher Christopher Gardner, physician Tracy Rydel, physician-chef Julia Nordgren, and Stanford chef David Iott.

She believes that it is more fun and memorable for medical students to be well-trained in food and nutrition by cooking and sharing meals together, instead of merely sitting in a lecture hall. Students are taught how to prepare healthy meals that are based on plants and whole foods.

One of the things that they learn is a concept known as the ‘protein flip’. Instead of having a large piece of meat at the centre of the plate, meat is used as a garnish for a plate full of plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Examples are veggie chicken stir-fry with brown rice or a main course salad with a small portion of grilled salmon.

Before class, students are asked to view preparatory videos online. Then, at Stanford’s teaching kitchen, they will watch the chef’s cooking demonstrations before they start chopping and cooking.

The doctor-chefs who oversee the students cook alongside them to represent the lay cook’s perspective. At the end of each session, they would share and eat together.

Medical students and doctors can slot in better daily eating habits

Based on the 7,422 participants surveyed on their eating habits before and after taking the course, the material presented had helped participants to cook fresh foods at home more frequently and eat more fruits and vegetables. After the course, participants were also more likely to say that their previous day’s dinner was healthy and enjoyable.

In order for medical schools to implement a successful cooking programme for their students, there is a need for nutrition instruction to be combined with hands-on demonstrations of how medical students can put the advice into practice in the kitchen.

Online courses can also be put in place, as they are both accessible and convenient. When patients are given videos and activities that they can use, it supports their health in the long-term.

Having such programmes also sends a strong signal to medical students that healthy eating is a priority that cannot be compromised on.

Furthermore, considering that there has been overwhelming connections between lifestyle factors and disease, perhaps the health of whole populations can be significantly improved when doctors are better trained to advise them on nutrition. MIMS

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