The connection between cooking and health goes back at least as far as 1893, but the concept of culinary medicine didn’t become widespread in the world of medical education until the last decade, including a growing program at UT Southwestern.
According to the Global Burden of Disease study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the No. 1 cause associated with US morbidity and mortality was a poor diet. The No. 4 cause was obesity. Sectors of the medical industry are beginning to put their money where their mouth is in recognition of nutrition’s importance. Physicians can prescribe certain foods that can be paid for with insurance for patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and can create medically-tailored meals for patients with HIV to reduce healthcare costs down the line.
Dr. Jaclyn Albin is an internist and pediatrician at UT Southwestern and the associate program director for the internal medicine/pediatrics residency program. She directs the culinary medicine classes to first-year medical students at UTSW, one of 55 residency programs nationwide that use the curriculum. “I felt that my students and residents were lacking in their ability to help people make lifestyle changes,” she says. “I noticed that they wanted to help their patients, but the advice that physicians are trained to give around lifestyle change is ‘Eat less and exercise more,’ which clearly doesn’t work.”
Albin’s husband and oldest child have celiac disease, and the adjusted diet they required helped solidify the connection between health and food, but she realized along the way that there was still much to learn “Professionally, I don’t feel fully equipped to provide what my patients need, and my students and residents don’t either,” she thought at the time. “[Physicians] can’t articulate any formal curriculum around nutrition.”
In 2015, she launched the Culinary Medicine Program at UTSW with her partner, dietician Milette Siler. The program allows students to take classes in the teaching kitchen on campus, with meals designed to be straightforward, nutritious, and delicious. If they are too complicated or don’t taste great, they are unlikely to be adopted for future use.
The class is intended to impact the students’ health and wellness during a time of increased physician burnout and give the doctors an understanding of and passion for culinary medicine that they can one day pass on to their patients. “Culinary medicine can be taught to anyone. It can be taught to anyone who’s lay or a health professional,” Albin says. “There’s not a person to whom it’s not relevant. If they’re able to eat and prepare food, then it’s relevant to them.”
Since its launch, the class has been an immediate success, with many more requests than spots in the class. During the pandemic, the course went virtual, and students cooked in their homes. The program has also hosted groups like the Southwestern Medical Foundation and the Cary Council, who help support UTSW with financial support. “Dr. Albin’s Culinary Medicine program is just one cutting-edge segment among many areas of science-backed research changing the landscape of medical innovation in Dallas,” said Cary Council chair Amanda Eagle George via release.
The program has also expanded to teach physical therapy and physician’s assistant students. Providers need to work in teams with nutritionists, dietitians, and nurses to have a meaningful impact. “Culinary medicine has the opportunity to build inter-professional collaboration in a way that healthcare is not always doing a good job of,” Albin says.
She hopes the program can help physicians break their focus on weight and what to avoid and instead encourage whole grains, low-fat protein, fruits, and vegetables and give them tools to prepare these foods. Lifestyle change and forming new habits will have a longer-lasting impact than trying to avoid unhealthy foods. “We are working with our patients on how they can reframe the conversation to be what good stuff can we practically get into your diet that’s not currently there, and let the good naturally push out some of the bad,” Albin says.
In addition to the impact on future generations of physicians and their potential patients, Albin wants to take the program to patients who need it. The medical development at Red Bird could host culinary medicine programming for underserved communities in the area. Still, Albin recognizes that she is only part of a puzzle of social determinants of health that include transportation, education, and access to healthy foods in neighborhoods that are often food deserts. Providing access to healthy food is just as important as the skills to cook it, and Albin hopes her program can be part of the solution. “The average physician in a clinic isn’t thinking about how a patient with low food security can’t just go home and cook kale and hope everybody eats it when they might just have enough resources to feed their family for the month,” Albin says. “We have to combine strategies for nutrition, education, food access so that we can solve some of the issues that drive chronic disease.”