Culinary Medicine...What is that?

 “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” –Hippocrates

I fell in love with food and cooking in my early 20’s and never looked back.  It all started as a graduate student when I realized that I needed to improve my own diet in order to be a role model for my patients.  Thank you to my professor David L. Katz, M.D., founder and director of Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and a national leader in Lifestyle Medicine, for the inspiration.  At the time, I relied heavily on processed staples such as artificial sweeteners, including diet soda and protein bars, for energy and sustenance.  My view of food was totally warped partly due to the influences of the food and diet industries. I was not accustomed to home cooked meals growing up. 

After studying with Dr. Katz, I gained knowledge and insight about nutrition and health. Needless to say, I ditched the artificial stuff and finally got up the nerve to buy my first cookbook and test out a few recipes in the kitchen.  After many mishaps including a few minors burns and cuts, I finally reached a level of proficiency in the kitchen.  To this day, I enjoy every cookbook that I own and make time to prepare healthy meals in the kitchen.  Cooking gives me the opportunity to let go and focus on the ingredients, the methodical repetition of chopping and preparing, ultimately leading to a delicious and healthy end product that I can enjoy with my family and friends.  Home cooking is not only an opportunity to spend time with family and friends, but also enhances nutrition contributing greatly to health and wellbeing.

To my dismay, since the mid 1900’s there has been a shift away from home food preparation in favor of eating out.  Americans cook less than anywhere else in the world, averaging <27 minutes a day preparing food compared to 60 minutes per day in 1965.  One reason for this change is the influence of the food industry especially the availability and convenience of readily accessible, highly-processed food items.  These are food items that are void of nutrients but laden with fat, sugar, starch, and salt.  In the US, an unhealthy diet is clearly associated with premature death due to chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.   

Consuming heavily processed, packaged foods promotes weight gain,  but it's important to note that eating out at restaurants can also promote weigh gain.  One recent study showed that the average entrée at non-chain restaurants contains about 1,200 calories!  Both the addition of high calorie ingredients such as cream and butter and larger portion sizes contribute to these ridiculously calorie-dense meals. Plates have increased from 1980 to 2000 from 10 inches to 12 inches, yet evidence shows that people tend to eat less when eating from smaller plates. 

Cooking and preparing food at home can put you in the driver’s seat. After all, you control what goes into your meals and onto the plate.  Sounds simple, but not so easy (at least in the beginning).  Luckily, the new field of culinary medicine bridges the gap between basic nutrition and cooking in order to increase confidence in cooking and improve wholesome food consumption, resulting in better health outcomes. Culinary medicine joins the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine.  The goal is to improve attitudes regarding healthy cooking and to increase time spent cooking at home. 

Emphasis is placed on instructing physicians and other health care providers on cooking skills that they can then teach their patients with the aim of achieving better health through wiser food choices and healthier cooking preparation.  Research shows patients are more likely to listen when health care providers relate personal health habits or self-care practices with their patients.

Despite the challenges of various influences, you can still eat delicious food, improve health, and feel good through small and simple lifestyle changes.  Choosing quality ingredients and learning simple, healthy ways to prepare food at home can have huge health implications for you and your family.  The field of culinary medicine helps to connect the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of healthy eating into practice.  Home food preparation can seem intimidating for most people, but once armed with a few simple cooking skills and tips you can start to enjoy the taste and health benefits of improving your nutrition.

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