Mar 12, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

It’s in the news: food is medicine. That food plays a role in health shouldn’t come as a surprise, but little has changed in how aspiring physicians learn about it.

Some diseases—like diabetes and some heart conditions—are directly related to nutritional issues in patients.

One school—Tulane Medical School in New Orleans first started offering a course in culinary medicine in 2012. Students learn about the effects of nutrition on health and even attend a cooking class to understand the needs of their patients.

The course has proven so helpful to medical students that Tulane now offers it to practicing physicians so that they can learn to use nutrition to inform their medical practice. 

So what, exactly is culinary medicine? Let’s take a closer look at what you need to know.

1. What is it?

It’s not just nutrition, diet, preventive medicine, or food science. There is not one philosophy, and it’s not just about food chemistry or good cooking.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), it’s a “new evidence-based field in medicine that blends the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine. Culinary medicine is aimed at helping people reach good personal medical decisions about accessing and eating high-quality meals that help prevent and treat disease and restore well-being.”

The purpose of the field? To help patients answer the question, “What can I eat to improve my condition?” 

2. Culinary medicine is on the rise

That’s right: more people are interested in culinary medicine. The NIH attributes this interest to five reasons.

First, the presence of widespread conflicting dietary advice on the internet combined with an increasing desire to eat out.

Secondly, the NIH points to a “widespread dissatisfaction” with conventional approaches to chronic illness and patients’ general excitement about integrative medicine.

Thirdly, the overabundance of highly processed and convenience foods has turned many patients away from buying pre-packaged foods and has sparked an interest in healthier eating.

What’s more is the rising cost of healthcare, especially associated with diseases related to lifestyle. Many low-income patients often feel torn between spending money on medication or food.

Finally, there’s an increased enthusiasm for “additive-free organic food, home gardening, local agriculture, and farmers' markets.”

3. It offers solutions to health issues

Culinary medicine helps people solve real health problems.

At Tulane, as med students learn to cook, they also learn how their patients can maximize the value of low-cost ingredients and good food.

From hypertension to heart disease and diabetes, culinary medicine is helping patients live healthier, more enriched lives.

In a 2015 NPR article, Dr. Timothy Harlan, known in the food media world as Dr. Gourmet said, “We know from the literature that when people go home and start cooking from real ingredients for themselves that their health improves.”

4.   It’s becoming part of med school curricula

In addition to the medical program at Tulane, other medical schools are following suit with culinary cooking options.

The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences also offers a hands-on culinary medicine course led by a faculty team of a physician, chef, and dietician.

In a recent US News and World Report article, students reported that the course not only helped from a medical perspective but gave her insight on the amount of time and money it takes to prepare healthy meals.  

Penn State’s College of Medicine offers another innovative option for medical students to study culinary medicine. Medical students learn about dietary intervention and healthy cooking by taking the course at the local senior center, learning side-by-side with older adults and patients.  

The University of New Mexico Medical School offers an interdisciplinary culinary medicine course with the College of Education. Why? Culinary medicine requires teaching—and the skills to do it.

Interested in learning more about culinary medicine? Check these out.

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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