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Culinary medicine: when your doctor prescribes you a cooking class

(Photo by, CC Images)

Let’s say you go to your family doctor and he or she says you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol or diabetes. And then you are written a prescription … for a cooking class.

This is actually happening across the country. It’s called culinary medicine and the movement is being led by Dr. Timothy Harlan, executive director at the
Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“First and foremost it is, here in New Orleans, a teaching kitchen,” explains Dr. Harlan. “We have a state-of-the-art, 4,500 square foot kitchen where we teach medical students and the community how to cook, but also health care professionals. We provide courseware to 15 percent of medical schools across the country to be able to do the same thing we’re doing.”

He says they also teach nursing students and physicians who are already practicing. They offer a certification program, so medical professionals can add Culinary Medicine Specialist to their title.

“We have folks in our certification program who have built kitchens in their practices in Maryland and San Francisco. Across the country, medical schools are building kitchens; in Nashville at Vanderbilt and the University of Texas in Houston. We believe this will be a significant part of the healthcare experience in the coming years.”

Dr. Harlan was a chef before he was a doctor. Also known as Dr. Gourmet, he writes cookbooks featuring healthy recipes and has a popular website, all based on the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, which he says is the most studied diet.

“It’s really common sense. It’s more fruit and nuts, more vegetables, more whole grains, more legumes, more fish, but not as much fish as you think. Quality oils and fats, less dairy and better quality dairy. Less meat and leaner meat and then alcohol in moderation.”

At the Goldring Center, the series of healthy cooking classes prescribed to patients are free, hands-on, and the hope is that learning to cook from a doctor, and learning the health benefits, will make the habit stick.

“In a lot of ways, this really is home economics for the 21st century with that really nice, healthy twist. We basically teach people to read a recipe, build a weekly menu, build a shopping list, go to the grocery store, come home, cook, plan for leftovers, because you don’t want to cook every day. Once you know how to cook, when you do go out to eat, you are a much more discerning consumer.”

It may sound basic, but changing the way you eat can keep you alive a lot longer.

“We know that diet can absolutely, without a doubt, help you control hypertension, blood tension, diabetes, cholesterol.”

Right now, the free community cooking classes in New Orleans are funded through philanthropy, grants, and tuition.

“But I think that three to five years from now, insurance companies will pay for this, that this will be a reimbursable expense. Just like you might go to the doctor or the physical therapist, that this will be an integral part of healthcare.”

The program is currently in 21 American medical schools and three residency programs. It has yet to reach Washington, but Dr. Harlan says they’re currently in talks with the University of Washington.

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