Why should we be teaching culinary medicine in medical schools?
Well, traditionally, medicine in its earliest roots and its earliest iterations as a healing practice was entirely based around food. Whether you look at Greek, Roman, Chinese medicine or Ayurveda from India, they were almost entirely food-based systems with additional use of botanicals and plants; as well as emotional medicines that were used in community, like ceremony, ritual, singing, and dancing. As Western allopathic medicine emerged, these aspects of health were really minimized. And as the pharmaceutical industry began to influence health care we saw a shift toward pharmaceutical medicine to the point where now when people think of medicine they think of pills. Things have radically shifted from the roots of healing to what we call Western medicine now.
Nutrition education really became a victim of that transition. Medical education, even though there are existing rules about offering 25 hours of nutrition education, rarely complies with this, and it is often offered in ways that are not practical for application. Learning about nutrition in a biochemistry class is very different from the nutrition I teach in a culinary medicine teaching kitchen curriculum like the one we teach at the University of Chicago. We are working with a chef in a teaching kitchen and making food and then eating it together and discussing the health implications of this recipe. I think it is vital that doctors learn how to talk about food and to teach people about ways to use food that are practical, affordable, and delicious. I don’t think that means doctors all need to be chefs, but in training future doctors there needs to be some exposure to food as part of clinical nutrition. That is what a culinary medicine program provides.
What do current doctors need to know, since they didn’t get this in medical school?
I look through the lens of integrative medicine. I believe there are so many things that are integral to the health and well-being of a human and to a community. A big part of it is food and what we grow in communities and what we put into our bodies. And it also revolves around who we eat our food with and how we eat our food. Are we mindfully eating our food? Are we sitting down and making space for eating and being deliberate about enjoying the meal in front of us, or are we eating on the go and eating just to get some food in so we can get to the next thing we have to do?
That impacts the way we digest that food and how well we assimilate the food into our bodies, and also our mental health around our food consumption—and the rhythm of our days, really. So the mindful eating piece is important to me. And then I also just feel very strongly about community being a part of food—sitting down and eating family dinners and having other meals with people we care about because that is how we build culture and build shared experience. I think that is also something we need to be very intentional about. It is something that is easy to let go with the pace of modern life.