This month, we are exploring Culinary Medicine, a new field of research that focuses on the relationship between food, health, and disease prevention. Priya Mathew is a second year medical student at UT Southwestern, and recipient of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship and MLK Scholarship for her work with Culinary Medicine at Crossroads Community Services food pantry in Dallas. Through a program called Food as Medicine, or FAME, she is driving progress and changing the health trajectory for families in our community.
Catch up on the Culinary Medicine series:
Learn about another trailblazer who helped set nutrition on sound scientific footing: Peter O’Donnell’s Persistence and the Center for Human Nutrition
By Priya Mathew
“And this is how you chop an onion!” said Milette, the registered dietitian co-leading our first Culinary Medicine elective class. I looked around at my peers.
“Phew,” I thought to myself. Looking at the faces of my classmates, I could tell I was not the only one who had never cut an onion like that before. But what Milette showed us was efficient and effective. Eight classes later, Dr. Jaclyn Albin and dietitian Milette Siler would teach my elective class of 32 first-year medical students even more valuable lessons.
Pushing Back Perceptions
The reality is that our country is plagued by chronic, preventable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. We “know” what foods are good for us and what foods contribute to negative health effects, but making the choice to “eat healthy” sounds like a punishment. How do we change that perception? What is a physician’s role in talking to patients about what they eat?
Considering most people eat three meals every day, food should be an important topic of discussion at medical appointments. We often take for granted that the food we eat has short-term and long-term effects on our ability to optimally function and, ultimately, our health.
I want to be part of the generation of medical professionals that attacks chronic diseases from their roots.
Culinary Medicine is an evidence-based model that combines the “art of cooking with the science of medicine.”1 The recipes and recommendations are based on initial findings from the landmark Seven Countries Study and what we continue to learn from research. Science supports the traditional Mediterranean diet, which includes a high intake of vegetables, legumes, fruits and nuts, fish, cereals, and olive oil and a low intake of saturated fats, sugar-sweetened beverages and desserts, refined grains, dairy products, and meat/poultry.
At UT Southwestern Medical Center, the Culinary Medicine elective helps students gain practical skills in encouraging patients to make changes in their diet based on their specific health needs and in the context of their lifestyle. Personally, I wanted to join the elective because, as a future physician, I want to help my patient at risk for cardiovascular disease make attainable goals with their diet before putting them on a pill; I want to have conversations with children and parents about the joys of cooking together as a family and the benefits of food in maintaining a child’s energy, growth, and mental and physical health; I want to be part of the generation of medical professionals that attacks chronic diseases from their roots.
Moving Forward Together
After taking the elective, I wanted to engage more in applying these principles to low-income populations at high risk for many chronic diseases. I joined the Food as Medicine (FAME) project at UT Southwestern with a team led by health disparities researcher, Dr. Sandi Pruitt. FAME aims to serve low-income food pantry clients throughout Dallas with nutrition education and support. These community culinary medicine events allow students to engage with people who may not have insurance, live in food deserts, or have limited options in what they can cook. This is such a powerful opportunity for students to recognize that not all people can afford to “just eat more fruits and vegetables,” to meal prep because they work several jobs, or to follow everything on a recipe if, for example electricity or limited kitchen appliances are an issue. This has taught me to meet patients where they are and help guide them to realistic goals and progress.
The appetite for studying Culinary Medicine continues to grow for my peers as well – last semester the class filled up in just 24 seconds. From my perspective, that is a clear signal that change is coming and we should tune in to this growing movement.
The Culinary Medicine elective and FAME offer students an invaluable, interactive experience that cannot be taught in the lecture hall, which is why so many students are eager to be part of this elective. After Milette showed us how to cut the onion, I started using that technique in my own cooking. And, with time, I gained confidence to share with friends and family. It’s the same with the principles of Culinary Medicine. It is efficient and effective because real change takes time. As future physicians, we want to aid in that process, helping our patients take ownership of their health through diet.
Because I had the opportunity to participate in the Culinary Medicine elective, I am able to translate what I learned to my own diet and to conversations with my future patients. I now feel more equipped and confident in helping patients prevent chronic disease and live a healthier life. The appetite for studying Culinary Medicine continues to grow for my peers as well – last semester the class filled up in just 24 seconds. From my perspective, that is a clear signal that change is coming and we should tune in to this growing movement.
Learn more about the Foundation’s partnership with Albert Schweitzer Fellowship
1. La Puma, J. (2016). What Is Culinary Medicine and What Does It Do? Population Health Management, 19(1), 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1089/pop.2015.0003