Food as Medicine: Doctors and Chefs Training Together

Aug 21, 2013

There’s no shortage of advice on healthy eating. But sometimes it seems there’s a shortage of reliable advice. Medical schools traditionally don’t offer much training in nutrition, but a new partnership between Johnson & Wales University and Tulane medical school could change that.

Welcome to a busy kitchen classroom at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. Typically, you’d find only culinary students here, busy chopping or sautéing, trying to plate the perfect dish. But for the past few weeks, they’ve been working with some less-than-seasoned sous chefs.

Fourth year Tulane medical student Neha Solanki, right, prepping a Greek frittata
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

“So I am working on the dessert for today. We are making a healthy cake for the team that Tara’s helping me with, because I know nothing about baking. So, all of this is new to me.”

This is Clinton Piper, looking the part in chef’s whites, but struggling a bit to work a whisk through the batter. That’s when his partner Tara Schwartz – a Johnson and Wales senior - decides to take over.

“And….that’s how you whisk.”

Piper may not yet know proper whisking technique. Or even the first thing about baking a cake. But he’s got other qualities. He’s a fourth-year medical student at New Orlean’s Tulane University medical school, about to begin a residency program in anesthesiology. He’s here for a short rotation through a new program designed to educate med students and chefs-in-training about nutrition. As far as the program’s creators know, it’s the first time a culinary school and a medical school have partnered like this. Piper says the goal is to change the way doctors think about food.

“I think it’s forward thinking to start to see, to view food as medicine. That’s not something that’s really on our radar right now in medical education. But with the burden of disease in the United States being so heavily weighted with lifestyle disease, I think it’s a very, very logical next step.”

Culinary and medical students pause for direction from professor Todd Seyfarth (at right, without a toque)
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

So-called lifestyle diseases mainly spring from bad habits, particularly bad eating habits. Think obesity, diabetes. They’re among the nation’s top health challenges. And Rhode Island is no exception. On average, more than a quarter of Rhode Islanders are obese. And the percentage diagnosed with diabetes has more than doubled in the past decade, to about eight percent. Doctors can treat these and related diseases. But Tulane med student Neha Solanki says she’d rather help her patients prevent them. 

“We basically learn how to take care of patients when things go wrong, which is sad. And I think we need to learn how to be able to make nutritious meals and to discuss diet in an educated manor.”

Solanki is working toward that goal, chopping veggies at the frittata station. When she finishes her rotation at Johnson and Wales, she’ll start a primary care residency program in Worcester, Massachusetts. She says that’s where she’ll be able to put her culinary training to work.

“If I’m able to prepare healthy meals for myself and my family and my friends, I think I can give appropriate counsel to patients when they come in.”

Solanki says she’d be confident giving basic pointers on healthy cooking as well as more advanced advice for people with food allergies. She says she’s also learned more about the complexities of nutritional science, like how to calculate the nutritional needs of a burn victim, or how to mix up what a patient needs from a tube feeding.

“Nutrition is one of the most important prognostic indicators for these patients. And often times they’re completely overlooked because they’re just not a priority. So I think it’s going to make me a stronger and a better physician.”

But for now, Solanki has to get chopping. That frittata she’s making is part of a high-tech meal the class is preparing for the Johnson and Wales’ track team. They’ll be arriving, breathless, sweaty, and hungry, in less than an hour.

Assistant professor Todd Seyfarth explains the assignment.

“They have to pretty much do a recovery meal. So the athletes will be walking right off the field and right into our buffet. And we’re going to take advantage of what’s called an anabolic window, a specific period of time after the workout where we can give them the best gains after their workout.”

Each dish being prepared is designed to release a precise amount of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats over the next few hours as the athletes digest. If their calculations are right and their recipes tasty enough, Johnson and Wales’ track team should be ready for a marathon tomorrow.

“By some of our food choices we might be able to decrease the recovery time. We may be able to decrease swelling post-workout.”

On today’s menu, a “recovery” bar, complete with whole grains, spices, and even some marshmallows. You heard that right. Marshmallows.

“It’s not healthy if you’re not working out, but if I have a specific need to get some carbohydrates into the athlete quickly, the glucose polymers that are in marshmallows might actually be a good choice.”

Neha Solanki’s Greek frittata may sound a bit simpler, but the ingredients are also designed to refuel and repair, says Solanki’s partner, culinary student Brianna Colacone.

“We have baby zucchini, red bliss potatoes, red bell peppers, portabella mushrooms, and tomatoes, and some spinach, and feta cheese and parmesan cheese. It’s going to be really good.”

It sounds good. But will it be ready in time? Colacone has to slow down every once in a while to show med student Solanki how to chop a particular vegetable. Fellow med student Clinton Piper is looking a little lost over at the cake station. Have these med students hampered or helped the kitchen’s budding chefs and dieticians? Professor Todd Seyfarth sees the bigger picture.

“They have a better understanding than I ever will of how the body functions. So by having them here and bouncing ideas off them, they may not know what we’re doing in this specific context, but they understand what’s happening in the body and they can inform some of the decisions we make. I love having them here.”

This is the joint Tulane and Johnson & Wales program’s inaugural year. Organizers hope to expand it to JWU’s other campuses nationwide, train med school faculty, and support research in the growing field they’re calling “culinary medicine.”