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Culinary Medicine Program Builds Nutrition IQ for Med Students; Now Extended to Faculty and Staff



Medical students participated in the Culinary Medicine elective last fall. The curriculum aims to teach them nutrition skills for their personal well-being and equip them to help patients in the future. (Photos by Alan Burns/UTHSC)

Physician Susan Warner believes a good diet is a recipe for good health.

A clinical pathologist, she is so passionate about the link between food and health that she became a certified culinary medicine specialist and professional chef. For the past several years, she has been working to spread the “Food is Health and Medicine” mantra to the UTHSC campus community.

“I recognized a long time ago, the link between nutrition and its impact on chronic disease,” said Dr. Warner, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Medical Education in the UTHSC College of Medicine. “Hippocrates said, ‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.’ It’s something that we’ve known for thousands of years, that diet and good health or bad health are linked. Food has the power to make us healthier or to make us sick.”

Dr. Susan Warner, center, and culinary instructors, Josh House, left, and Nancy Kistler, lead the classes.

With a team of culinary instructors, registered dietitians, and subspecialty faculty, Dr. Warner has been teaching the Culinary Medicine elective to medical students at UTHSC using the Health Meets Food™ curriculum developed by the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University. The goal of the program is to raise nutrition and culinary skills for medical students’ own health and well-being and to equip them to communicate nutrition principles to their patients in terms of real and healthful food.

“We are trying to train the trainers, who can then become leaders for better health across Tennessee and practicing role models of healthier lifestyles themselves,” she said.

Beginning in February, the Culinary Medicine curriculum will be offered not only to medical students, but to faculty and staff of the university at no charge. Thanks to a grant from the Tennessee Department of Health, Project Diabetes, two series of six hands-on culinary modules will be offered on Mondays beginning February 10 from 4 to 6 p.m., and March 23 at the same time. Each six-week series accommodates up to 16 participants. Classes will be held in the kitchen of the Student-Alumni Center. Sign-ups are on a first-come, first-served basis.

Dr. Warner is thrilled with what she sees as a growing interest in Culinary Medicine at UTHSC and believes this reflects a global movement for food, cooking, and wellness. However, she is quick to note that getting to this point has taken much team effort.

In 2016, three medical students, Travis Sullivan, Chris Dewan, and Margaret Mirro, took the lead in promoting the Culinary Medicine elective with their fellow students. They are now physicians taking the healthful eating message to their patients. (Submitted photo)
Two MDs, Three Students, and a Borrowed Kitchen

Dr. Warner had a long-time interest in cooking and nutrition, but it wasn’t until a 2013 trip to Tulane for her husband’s medical school reunion, that she discovered Culinary Medicine as a perfect merging of medicine, nutrition, and culinary skills, as well as its potential as a professional skill in the doctor’s bag. “The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane under the direction of Timothy Harlan, MD, had developed a translational way of teaching nutrition to medical students and had also written a program for the community,” she said.

Back in Memphis, Dr. Warner was introduced to Joan Han, MD, UTHSC associate professor of pediatrics-endocrinology, director of the UT-Le Bonheur Pediatric Obesity Program, and director of the Healthy Lifestyle Clinic at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, who was interested in bringing Culinary Medicine to Memphis. Dr. Han eventually obtained a license for UTHSC to use the Goldring program.

With three second-year medical students, Travis Sullivan, Chris Dewan, and Margaret Mirro, all now physicians Dr. Warner described as “the heroes of starting the program on campus,” and Dr. Han’s team, they held the first series of eight classes in 2016 for 16 medical students in a donated space with a kitchen in the Junior League of Memphis Community Resource Center. The students were so enthusiastic that there was near-perfect attendance at all the classes. One student missed a class because he was undergoing surgery.

The following year, with some private funding, the teaching kitchen at Church Health was used for UTHSC faculty to teach a second group of M1 and M2 students, as well as a community series in which the trained students and faculty taught community members.

In 2018, the College of Medicine Department of Medical Education offered Culinary Medicine as an elective to fourth-year medical students. Classes have filled up quickly and there is usually a waiting list. They are now taught in the Student-Alumni Center kitchen, thanks to the generosity and vision of Ken Brown, JD, MPA, PhD, FACHE, UTHSC’s executive vice chancellor and chief operations officer.

The National Academy of Sciences calls for medical students to have a minimum of 25 hours of nutrition education, however, only 27 percent of medical schools in the United States meet this recommendation. UTHSC is one of them. The university is among approximately 50 medical schools across the country using the Health Meets Food™ curriculum. More than 50 medical students have been trained at UTHSC through the program. Students are held to academic standards and are well equipped to volunteer in community programs addressing health issues related to diet and food insecurity.

“What we’re trying to do with the medical students is more academic,” Dr. Warner said.  “We’re trying to get them to take better care of themselves, but we are also trying to make them aware of evidence-based nutrition principles and how to talk to their patients about food, and also train them to go into the community to be role models.”

The classes consist of instruction, meal prep, and discussion. Recipes follow a Mediterranean Diet recommended by the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
More Than a Cooking Class

Each class includes three components: Pre-class work, including a video and article review with a quiz; cooking in groups; and a case review and exercise led by faculty, along with a nutritional discussion of the recipes.

“We try to take easy-to-find, budget-friendly ingredients we know people like, and use them in delicious recipes with healthier substitutions,” Dr. Warner said. “The recipes in this course are based on a Mediterranean Diet, which is a whole-food, plant-forward way of eating recommended in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

For example, one class features spaghetti four ways. There is a traditional version with meat; one with whole-wheat pasta and some vegetables; one with whole-wheat pasta, less meat, and more vegetables including mushrooms and lentils; and one with only vegetables and no meat. Each version progressively illustrates a more healthful approach to the dish.

“Culinary medicine is a unique and incredible rotation,” said Alex Galloway, MD, an internal medicine resident at Emory University who took the elective at UTHSC in the fall of 2018 as an M4. “We all know nutrition is important to health, but nowhere else in our education do we have time to actually learn about it. This rotation gives the opportunity to focus on the science of nutrition, communication with patients, and the practical culinary skills of preparing healthy meals. I feel more confident talking to friends and family about how to interpret new diet fads and why a balanced diet still makes sense.”

The program will continue to train medical students who choose the elective this winter, spring, and beyond. However, Dr. Warner said it is “casting a wider net” with the faculty and staff classes. Medical students completing the training assist with the faculty and staff series.

“I think it can make a difference,” she said. “Health care professionals need to take the lead and UTHSC is the academic leader for training future health care providers across the state. That’s why I’m passionate about it, and I think we can make a huge impact for better health for the community and Tennessee.”

The faculty and staff culinary medicine series beginning February 10 filled in one day. A few spots are open for the March 23 series. To register for the faculty and staff series, get on a waiting list, or indicate interest in future classes, go to: https://www.uthsc.edu/medicine/culinary-medicine/index.php