Crash course in healthy cooking aims to help docs better help their patients

David Eisenberg (left) poses with U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and chef Scott Samuel at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California.

March 1, 2013 — David Eisenberg envisions a time when doctors learn not just biology and chemistry—but cooking in an effort to help more patients live healthier lives. Given recent alarming increases in diabetes and other obesity-related ailments, Eisenberg, a doctor, associate professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and executive vice president of the Samueli Institute, thinks schooling doctors and other health professionals in the latest in nutrition science—and giving them hands-on training in how to cook healthy meals—would make them more likely to give their patients sound nutritional advice, and hopefully help improve their patients’ health as well as their own.

Now Eisenberg has study results that suggest he’s on the right track.

Over the past several years, he has helped run a four-day conference, or “crash course,” in healthy cooking, eating, and lifestyle—for doctors, nurses, nutritionists, restaurant chefs, institutional food service directors, fitness professionals and others—called “Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives-Caring For Our Patients and Ourselves.” He led a study titled “Enhancing Medical Education to Address Obesity: ‘See One. Taste One. Cook One. Touch One’,” published online February 18, 2013 in JAMA Internal Medicine, in which attendees surveyed after the March 2010 conference said they were eating and cooking healthier—and advising their patients to do the same. They said they were more aware of their calorie intake; ate more vegetables, nuts, and whole grains; and were better able to assess their patients’ nutrition status and to successfully advise their overweight and obese patients about healthy eating and lifestyle.

HSPH co-authors included research fellow Adam Bernstein; [[Bernard Rosner]], professor in the Department of Biostatistics; [[Eric Rimm]], associate professor in the Departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology; and [[Walter Willett]], Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition.

“In this program, a combination of classroom-based training, demonstrations, and hands-on experience led a group of health care professionals to change their personal behavior—and, most importantly, to feel more comfortable advising their patients who were overweight or obese,” said Eisenberg. “Moreover, those physicians who practiced the healthiest lifestyles were the most apt to advise their patients to do the same. These are provocative new findings.” Eisenberg noted that most continuing education conferences convey information but very few have tracked changes in behaviors among course participants.

The results of the study are consistent with previous research that has shown that doctors who practice healthy behaviors—like exercising, wearing seatbelts, or not smoking—are more likely to advise their patients to do the same. And steering patients toward healthier eating behaviors is essential, nutrition experts say, because overweight and obesity—frequently called a national “epidemic”—is linked with numerous health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, and as many as 11 types of cancers.

The “Healthy Kitchens” conference, presented jointly by HSPH and the Culinary Institute of America, has been sold out each of the eight times its been offered since 2007. Those who attend the conference spend four days at the Culinary Institute’s Napa Valley campus, where they hear lectures, watch cooking demonstrations, and get to do their own cooking—in an airplane-hangar-sized room full of kitchen workstations.

To Eisenberg, training in hands-on cooking helps people understand that it’s not hard—and not expensive—to shop for, cook, and eat healthy, flavorful food. “You can have a lecture-based nutrition conference, but it’s not nearly as sexy, powerful, enjoyable, and transformative an experience as actually cooking yourself,” he said.

Because of the study’s limitations—it only looked at a three-month period, had a modest sample size and response rate, and did not measure the impact of physicians’ changes on their patients’ behaviors and clinical outcomes—there’s a need for larger, longer studies, Eisenberg said. He hopes future studies will confirm the positive results of combining classroom nutrition with hands-on cooking and that, based on those results, medical school deans will consider adding nutrition and cooking components to their curricula.

“Medical students have a required lab for chemistry and biology instruction,” Eisenberg said. “Why not consider a kitchen as a ‘lab’ for future required courses in nutrition?”

He also hopes others make use of these strategies. “Grade-school kids, college-age students, military personnel, people who live in retirement communities—we all eat three times a day, so the facts and instruction we’re offering are potentially of interest and value to everyone, regardless of age, socioeconomics, or position,” Eisenberg said.

He added, “This could be a new approach to our collectively confronting the epidemics of obesity and diabetes.”

Karen Feldscher

photo: The Culinary Institute of America. All rights reserved.