Ask your doctor how much nutrition education they received during their medical training and you’re apt to be surprised by what you learn. Not all medical schools offer dedicated nutrition courses.
But several UCI Health physicians who recently availed themselves of a novel training program in culinary medicine are now bringing these lessons to their patients and community groups.
“Culinary medicine education empowers patients and providers to improve health, primarily through food,” says Dr. Bavani Nadeswaran, a UCI Health weight management specialist and professor of internal medicine at the UCI School of Medicine. “It combines the joy of cooking with the science of medicine.”
The UCI School of Medicine is one of more than 60 academic institutions to adopt the Health meets Food curriculum, which is administered by George Washington University for medical student and resident training. It is offered through a collaboration with the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute.
What is culinary medicine?
“Culinary medicine training offers a multidisciplinary approach to food as medicine,” says program director Dr. Nimisha K. Parekh, a UCI Health gastroenterologist who specializes in inflammatory bowel diseases. “It combines nutrition education and motivational interviewing with culinary skills to give healthcare providers at all levels effective tools to improve the health of patients and communities.”
Nadeswaran says the classes have broadened her knowledge of nutrition, simple cooking methods and skills she uses to teach her patients how to improve their health and help treat conditions such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
“It’s not only learning a recipe, it’s learning from the Samueli Institute’s executive chef, Jessica VanRoo, how to prepare healthy and delicious, culturally appropriate dishes,” she says. “It’s being introduced to where and how to shop; which cooked foods can be stored and how to store them properly; how to prepare protein in different ways; what vegetables to buy and how to chop them properly.”
Moreover, she learned practical, culturally sensitive ways to discuss affordable approaches to food and nutrition. “I still prescribe medications, but now I also have the tools to educate patients on proven lifestyle interventions.”
A personalized approach to nutrition
Nadeswaran makes use of these tools for the integrative health institute's Healthy Weight group visits, which are medical visits that are covered by most insurance plans and Medicare.
“The people who take part in the visits all have some degree of struggle with weight,” she says. “We get to know each patient at a basic level: what kind of food types they enjoy; how they eat; how often they go out to eat; what they understand about food, cooking and behavioral nutrition. It becomes a truly a personalized experience for the patients.”
The bariatric medicine specialist finds it rewarding to see patients make measurable improvements in in their health, such as reducing their blood pressure, losing pounds and improving their body mass index.
“When I hear patients make statements like, ‘I started doing this and I am absolutely enjoying it,’ I feel like these are things that they’re going to do for a long time,” she says.
“Culinary medicine is a way of looking at how you eat for the rest of your life.”