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Better nutrition leads to better care in the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine

students in kitchen
Students prepare a meal in a new course called Culinary Medicine: Cooking Up Health

It’s definitely not your typical dinner date. Beginning this year, nine first- and second-year Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine students are spending their Tuesday nights in the Northwestern Memorial Hospital kitchen, learning about nutrition while preparing and eating a meal together. That’s just one component of Culinary Medicine: Cooking Up Health, a new elective offered through the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University.

Cooking Up Health is an effort to combat what Dr. Melinda Ring, director of the Osher Center and co-facilitator of the course, refers to as a “paucity of nutrition content in healthcare training.” While medical schools are required to have a certain number of hours focused on nutrition training, and Northwestern meets this guideline, Ring says much of that training is focused on inpatient nutrition, rather than practical, outpatient application of nutrition principles. Additionally, patients who are advised by their physician to change their dietary habits often need guidance to do so, and many physicians don’t feel confident in their ability to provide that support.

“I think translating nutrition research into meaningful, understandable language is a big challenge for health professionals,” Ring said. “Instead of just asking a patient to adopt a low-sodium or low-fat diet, we must show them what that looks like in practice and how they can make changes in the real-world setting.”

The gears started turning on the Cooking Up Health program after Osher was invited to take part in the nationwide Teaching Kitchen Collaborative, which focuses on translating nutrition information into something people can incorporate into their lives.  

In order to execute Cooking Up Health, Osher has partnered with Common Threads, a Chicago-based nonprofit established in 2003 with the goal of bringing people together to learn about and enjoy healthy food.

During the three-hour training/cooking/dinner sessions, led by Ring and Osher fellow Dr. Rupa Mahadevan, Cooking Up Health students create a meal focused on a pre-selected concept. The first week, they learned about the obesity epidemic, plant-based and Mediterranean diets, and prepared a vegetable tagine with whole wheat couscous and falafel.

There are six of those sessions, followed by a community engagement component. The students bring established Common Threads nutrition curriculum into Chicago’s Jenner Public Elementary School, where they translate what they’ve learned and teach K-8th graders about sound nutrition. They also prepare healthy snacks with Jenner students.

Cooking Up Health incorporates a media literacy component as well. Ring says the program helps medical students sort through conflicting nutrition research. “New studies come out saying coffee is good for you, or coffee is bad for you” Ring said. “We’re hoping to give these students the current state of knowledge and also the ability to interpret emerging research with an open scientific mind.”

Much like the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine takes a holistic view of health, Cooking Up Health takes a multifaceted view of improving nutrition. Educating medical students about healthful eating helps them take better care of themselves — a critical component of a demanding career in medicine. Healthy habits in hand, these future physicians can better serve patients at the point of care, and they can also offer practical advice and encouragement for patients’ long-term nutritional well-being. 

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