What if You Could Talk to Your Doctor About Cooking?

Tulane's medical school recently hired a chef to teach its medical students how to cook. (Jeff Kubina)

Is your doctor your go-to for nutrition advice? Neither is mine. And why would I expect that?

According to recent polls, fewer than a quarter of doctors say they've had sufficient training to provide nutritional advice to their patients. We all know about the Hippocratic Oath, but how about that other thing Hippocrates said: "Let Food Be Thy Medicine."

For the American medical profession to live up to that, there'd have to be more than one doctor in the country widely known for prescribing broccoli. Most medical schools aren't particularly dedicated to teaching their students about food.

That's beginning to change, though, as schools like Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana, start thinking differently.

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Would-be doctors at Tulane aren't just learning about nutrition. They're learning how to cook.

Dr. Timothy Harlan, known in the food media world as Dr. Gourmet, is also executive director at The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane. Harlan says the program isn't just about helping students understand nutrition. The focus is on practical talk about food. Harlan wants Tulane-educated doctors to be able to teach their patients everyday skills in how to cook, what to cook and why.

"Physicians talk about nutrition and diet all the time, but they don't talk about it in a way that communicates change to their patients," Harlan says, in a video produced by the school.

The students learn to make the most of low-cost ingredients, so they can cater to low-income communities. And Harlan says the school also provides cooking classes to practicing doctors and the public.

These skills are sorely needed in New Orleans. In 2010, 64 percent of adults were classified as obese or overweight. That results in higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

"We know from the literature that when people go home and start cooking from real ingredients for themselves that their health improves," Harlan says. "We also know that they don't really know how to do that."

Cheryl Spann took part in the community cooking class, and says she's learned what good carbs are and how to cut back on sugar.

The writing on the wall at Tulane's center for Culinary Medicine.
The writing on the wall at Tulane's center for Culinary Medicine. (Tulane University)

"My health is getting so much better now," Spann says in the school's video. "And I do believe that when I see my primary care physician in the next month, I will no longer be taking hypertensive medicine and I will no longer be taking diabetes medicine."

Tulane's medical school was among the first to take on a licensed chef as an instructor. Its curriculum, developed in partnership with the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University, has been sold to sixteen other medical schools.

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If you're thinking this is the wrong time of year to talk about healthy food, Dr. Gourmet has a luscious menu for you. And you can tell your guests, when they're licking their fingers, that your holiday meal was recommended by a doctor. When's the last time you got to say that in a sentence?

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