Staff of Second Spring Farm at farmers market

What is culinary medicine, anyway?

September 11, 2023 |

Above: Lissa and Antonio, of Second Spring Farm, at farmers market.

“Culinary Medicine” is becoming more relevant in conversations locally and across the United States. With rising chronic disease rates and persisting food insecurity, the 2022 National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health emphasized a need for food as medicine in healthcare. Culinary medicine programs are also growing in the Northern Michigan area. With such relevance around this topic, the following question must be asked: What is culinary medicine and why does it matter?

Culinary medicine is an evidence-informed practice that brings cooking and nutrition into the medical conversation. It also aims to prevent and manage chronic disease based on personal nutritional needs. When it comes to health, both food and nutrition are important pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately, these topics are sometimes overlooked at the doctor’s office. The goal of culinary medicine is to change this. 

Prescription of culinary medicine can take many forms, including nutrition education or counseling, making food access connections, and even hands-on cooking. Prescriptions are guided by asking questions like “What if instead of lowering blood pressure with medication alone, patients are also brought into the kitchen to learn about heart-healthy meals?” Culinary medicine turns these “what ifs” into possibilities. 

Through culinary medicine, healthcare providers led by teams with Registered Dietitian and Nutritionists  (RDNs) can provide diet-related education not only for disease management or recovery but also prevention. With rising rates of heart disease and diabetes in the United States, prevention is key! According to the Centers for Disease Control, this past year alone, chronic disease management cost the U.S. 4.1 trillion dollars. By using more preventative approaches in healthcare, like culinary medicine, costs can be cut.

For many people, food insecurity, or the lack of access to safe and healthy food, is a driving risk factor for chronic disease. When lacking reliable access to nutritious food, Americans are forced to rely on more processed foods that are higher in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar, putting them at greater risk for disease. Culinary medicine offers a solution to this barrier. For example, providers can give food-insecure patients prescriptions to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. They can also help patients find community resources to access food, like pantries, markets, or free meal sites. Thanks to the Northwest Food Coalition and the Farm2Neighbor program, most pantries in the Grand Traverse region are stocked with fresh produce from nearby farms.

There are several ways to include more culinary medicine in healthcare systems. Making closer connections between RDNs and doctors will increase referrals for nutrition counseling. Also, including more nutrition-related content in medical school will increase doctors’ knowledge of nutrition for disease management. Nutrition in medical education can even encourage doctors to learn more about their communities so they are better able to connect patients with food resources. 

Another opportunity for culinary medicine growth is bringing providers and patients into the kitchen. Newly published research from the 2022 Teaching Kitchen Research Conference showed extremely positive results. Teaching kitchen experiences reinvigorated passions for food, cooking, and health among doctors, patients, and medical students. Beyond medical offices, the use of teaching kitchens can also extend into school classrooms. One such possibility would be supporting mental health counseling through fun, uplifting cooking experiences that educate students about eating for brain health.

The Farms, Food and Health team at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities continues to support culinary medicine efforts. Since 2017, Groundwork, in partnership with Munson Healthcare and the Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College, has hosted three culinary medicine training sessions for health care workers. Groundwork also continues to bring providers and community members into the Esperance Community Teaching Kitchen to champion programs like their successful “Dinner with Your Doctor” sessions. 

Supporting the growth of culinary medicine will build a healthier environment both locally and across the nation. While access to medication and traditional treatment methods matter, patients also need tools to support their recovery through access to and knowledge of healthy foods. Through culinary medicine, this is possible! Let’s continue to grow passions for local food, sustainable farms, cooking, and community health.Groundwork logo for story end