Promoting Health Through Cooking
Earlier this year, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health launched its Nourish Program, an 8-week culinary medicine elective designed to teach McGovern Medical School students about food and nutrition through hands-on training.
In partnership with the Tulane University Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine and delivered through the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, the program is taught over the course of eight three-hour cooking classes led by former chef Laura S. Moore, dietetic specialist of Health Promotion & Behavioral Sciences and director of the Dietetic Internship Program at UTHealth School of Public Health, and Jeanne Piga-Plunkett, co-coordinator of the Dietetic Internship Program at UTHealth School of Public Health. In each class, students learn about what healthy foods are, how to cook, and how to modify meals to make them healthier and more nutritious.
“Really and truthfully, everybody eats, but that doesn’t mean they do it well,” Piga-Plunkett said.
Ultimately, the goal is to teach students to understand and become well-versed in nutrition. Oftentimes, physicians are on the front lines of counseling patients about how poor diets and unhealthy lifestyle habits can put them at risk for developing chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, making nutrition an important part of their training.
However, nutrition courses aren’t commonplace in medical school curriculums. According a 2015 report in the Journal of Biomedical Education, only 29 percent of medical schools in the country offer medical students at least 25 hours of nutrition education.
“If these students or physicians have five to 10 minutes with their patients, instead of giving a prescription, they might be able to tell them about a low-sodium diet and how they can lower the amount of sodium they take in on a regular basis,” Piga-Plunkett said. “Because they’ve actually done it and they see it and they taste it [through the program], it becomes real. It becomes information that easily rolls off their tongue.”
The four main types of non-communicable diseases—cardiovascular diseases (such as heart attacks and stroke), cancer, chronic respiratory diseases (such as chronic obstructed pulmonary disease and asthma) and diabetes—are the leading causes of death and disability in the country and around the world, with unhealthy diet being a primary risk factor.
The program is based on the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease thanks to its focus on whole grains, legumes, fruit, vegetables, lean meats and healthy oils.
“As the studies have progressed, they found that just including two of those food groups in the diet on a daily basis will reduce your risk of disease, including heart disease and cancer, by 25 percent,” Piga-Plunkett said. “It’s really … very easy to incorporate these foods. They’re very flavorful and simple.”
The program not only allows students to get a better grasp on nutrition, but it also teaches them the culinary skills to prepare healthy meals.
“In our low sodium class, we really teach them how to put the salt shaker aside and look at fresh herbs, dried herbs, marinades, different ways to incorporate … to release flavors out of foods, such as roasting, deglazing a pan,” Moore said. “They’re also learning culinary skills, from the knife skills to all aspects of how to cook the food and present it well.”
While the program’s curriculum is didactic, Moore said the course and the process of cooking allows students to renew their appreciation for their food.
“[Cooking] is sensory. It’s owning the recipe. It’s taking time. Eating should be mindful,” Moore said. “In order for it to be mindful, you have to take the time to prepare. It’s connecting with your food and really appreciating the food that you’re eating, so that when you sit down to eat it, you don’t just throw it all in your mouth and eat quickly. It’s really an experience.”
The program graduated its second cohort of students Tuesday and will welcome its third group May 25.