Reimagining Nutrition Education: Doctor-chefs teach Stanford medical students how to cook

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Photograph courtesy of Michelle Hausman

Stanford medical students still learn traditional topics like anatomy, genetics and neuroscience. But now, they can also learn how to cook, thanks to a new hands-on course developed in part by Stanford’s Michelle Hauser, MD.

A former Le Cordon Bleu chef, Hauser is currently an internal medicine-primary care attending for Stanford residents and a postdoctoral research fellow at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. She teamed up with Stanford pediatrics instructor Maya Adam, MD; physician Tracy Rydel, MD; nutrition researcher Christopher Gardner, PhD; physician-chef Julia Nordgren, MD; and Stanford chef, David Iott, to launch the new class, which is featured in a video.

Hauser said the course aims to teach future clinicians how to cook healthy food, so they can more effectively counsel their patients on nutrition and diet. Intrigued, I spoke with her recently.

Why did you introduce this course?

“Diet is the most significant risk factor for disability and premature death in the US. However, less than one-third of medical school and residency programs offer a dedicated nutrition course to their students. When courses are available, many schools use outdated, overly long and complicated online modules rather than in-person nutrition instruction. They often just focus on nutrients, whereas patients think of nutrition in terms of food. And most schools don’t teach how to effectively counsel patients to change their behavior around eating — people know it is healthy to eat more vegetables, but how do they accomplish this? We need to better prepare physicians to treat the underlying causes of disease and to prevent diet and lifestyle-related diseases from occurring in the first place.”

How can your course help?

“Teaching kitchens are the perfect, hands-on medium to help doctors learn about food. By learning to prepare delicious, healthy food for ourselves, we become healthier — and studies show that physicians with healthy habits are more likely to counsel patients on those habits. Additionally, it’s more fun and memorable to learn about food and nutrition while cooking and sharing meals together than it is to sit in a lecture hall.

As a platform to teach about nutrition, our new teaching kitchen elective focuses on how to prepare healthy meals based on plants and whole foods, a diet that is ideal for the majority of the population. We also teach a concept called the “protein flip” — instead of having the center of your plate be a large piece of meat, you use meat as a garnish for a plate full of plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Think veggie chicken stir-fry with brown rice or a main course salad with a small portion of grilled salmon.

Our sessions use a flipped classroom format. Before class, students view engaging preparatory videos online (and many of these are available through Stanford’s Food and Health series). At Stanford’s teaching kitchen, they watch the chefs’ cooking demonstrations and then lace up their aprons and start chopping and cooking. In addition, Tracy Rydel, Maya Adam, Christopher Gardner and faculty from other medical programs are cooking alongside the medical students to represent the lay cook’s perspective, as well as spread the idea of using teaching kitchens to others in the Bay Area and beyond. At the end of each session, we all share and eat together.”

How do you make healthy food appealing?

“Healthy food has gotten a bad rap for far too long. We need to make sure that healthy food is delicious if we expect people — including ourselves — to eat it so that it can nourish our bodies and prevent nutrition-related chronic diseases. Food is a huge part of all of our cultural identities and is intricately linked with many of our fondest memories. I often see medical professionals in training and in practice tell patients to stop eating a whole variety of things — many with personal and cultural significance — without helping them figure out what and how to eat differently. And these conversations often make it sound like the patient needs a ‘special’ diet inappropriate for the whole family. Instead, we need to celebrate the togetherness of sharing healthy food.

 For the final project, the students will make favorite healthy foods that mean something to them. For instance, I would make hummus, tabouli and falafel wraps (falafels rolled up in warm whole-wheat pita bread with chopped tomatoes, scallions, cucumbers and spring mix drizzled with lemon-tahini sauce). As a vegetarian with a dairy allergy, my Irish-immigrant family’s traditional Christmas dinner normally left me with a lonely potato and a few token veggies. However, a few years back I cooked this Middle Eastern meal for my family and it was a hit. And this year, my mom requested that we make the meal as the centerpiece of our Christmas spread!”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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