Benefits of incorporating culinary medicine into clinical settings

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Practitioners know how important nutrition is to health, but the immensity of it is so impressive, said Melinda Ring, MD, FACP, ABOIM, at the 2022 Integrative Healthcare Symposium in New York City.

Ring, director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University, defined culinary medicine as a medical practice that combines the science behind nutrition with cooking. She said it can be practiced by a range of healthcare professionals including medical doctors, behavioral healthcare providers, and dieticians.

Culinary medicine is often practiced within teaching kitchens where patients learn about nutrition and meal planning strategies, receive hands-on culinary instruction and group support.

Ring defined teaching kitchens as learning laboratories that involve whole health and life skills. She explained that virtually anyone can participate in them whether they’re children, teenagers, college students, patients, employers, or health professionals.

Ring cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that suggests six in 10 adults in the United States suffer from a chronic disease, with four in 10 of them having two or more. The same study states that these chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, are the leading causes of death, disability, and healthcare costs in the U.S.

A Global Burden of Disease study found that an “improvement of diet could potentially prevent one in every five deaths globally.” However, according to Ring, the American healthcare system is largely unprepared to improve the nutrition of their patients. Citing a study published in The Journal of Biomedical Education, Ring explained that only 29 percent of U.S. medical schools offer the recommended 25 hours of nutrition education, with the average amount of nutrition training among medical students totaling 20 hours.

“Most of this nutrition education is not real-world nutrition. It’s not about the patient sitting in front of you in the outpatient office asking you about what they should be eating,” Ring said.

To prevent, manage, and treat chronic illness, Ring said there is a growing movement to start considering food as medicine. This could be formed into medically tailored meals and grocery lists, and even produce prescription programs.

“People know what to eat but not how to cook it,” said Ring.

A study published in Obese Research & Clinical Practice, found that patients were two times more likely to lose five percent of their body weight when their doctors discussed weight loss with them. However, less than half of primary care physicians tracked their patients’ BMI or discussed nutritional interventions with their patients, according to a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. In 2022 there remains a lack of discussion around nutrition among physicians and their patients, Ring explained.

“We are still hesitant in talking to patients about losing weight for a variety of reasons,” Ring said.

Part of the problem, according to Ring, is a lack of nutrition education among health professionals. To increase physician’s confidence, Ring said culinary medicine courses have proven to be effective. At the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University, Ring helped design a course known as “Cooking up health” where medical students are taught not only about nutrition but how to prepare meals and give patients cooking tips.

After the course, students reported increased confidence on how to counsel patients and felt more prepared to cook healthy meals for themselves. Ring saw that during the pandemic virtual cooking classes showed results consistent with previous years. They were able to maintain student focus during the online course.

When designing a class in culinary medicine there are many considerations, Ring explained. She said whether the course is going to be in person, virtual, one-on-one, or in a group is an important first step. The next step, Ring said, is identifying your targeted demographic and disease focus. Courses should be prepared with resources including a strong leader, internal support and staffing, funding, and strong relationships with patients as well as community partners.

Culinary medicine can be taught in a range of different settings including mobile cart, pop-up prep stations, portable kitchens, traditional kitchens, and virtual kitchens.

Ring also described culinary medicine models of interventions. She said one part of the model focuses more on nutrition and health content through lectures (in person or online), discussions, and handouts. The other part is more culinary focused, involving more hands-on teaching methods like demonstrations, individual, and group cooking sessions.

Ring said funding for these classes can come from:

  • Insurance/healthcare payer
  • Self-pay
  • Grants/philanthropy
  • Partnerships

Marketing and assessing the success of teaching sessions is very beneficial as well, Ring mentioned.

“I hope you are inspired to learn more about culinary medicine for you, your patients, and you family,” concluded Ring.