What's cooking, doc?

Medical students learn to cook nutritious food and give dietary advice to patients

The Mediterranean diet includes more fruit and vegetables, whole grains, seafood and quality oils.
The Mediterranean diet includes more fruit and vegetables, whole grains, seafood and quality oils. PHOTO: ISTOCK

Culinary skills may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of what makes a good doctor.

But one doctor thought it so important that he started the first culinary medicine programme in the United States four years ago.

Dr Timothy Harlan, an executive director at the Goldring Centre for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University in the US, was in Singapore last week to talk about how food can help reduce the risk of many conditions that afflict people, including heart disease and cancer.

His goal is to teach medical students how to cook food that is not just delicious, but happens to be good for them as well.

The internal medicine specialist is no stranger to cooking. While working as a dishwasher in various restaurants, he learnt cooking techniques from their chefs. At 22, he opened his first restaurant.

A few years later, a close family member was diagnosed with diabetes, which inspired him to go to medical school and become a doctor. Since then, he has authored several books on healthy cooking.

Dr Harlan pointed out that, due to technological advances over the past 15 years, there has been a significant increase in research on food and how it impacts health.

However, he also added that, in the same time period, there has been a rise in diets consisting of calorie-dense, nutrient-low food.

The problem is not just limited to the US. With the Asian diet becoming more westernised, there is a "skyrocketing of diabetes prevalence" here as well, he said in an interview with Mind&Body.

He hopes to combat this through teaching doctors and doctors-to-be how to cook healthy food.

His classes help medical students and physicians understand how to make lifestyle discussions part of their routine visits with patients. They would not talk about saturated fat or cholesterol, but simply about food, he said.

A sample class can last about three hours. Participants complete reading material on nutrition and food, watch lectures and do a quiz online before coming to class.

They are then given cooking lessons and asked to prepare a meal. The teams explain the nutritional value of the meals and why they chose certain recipes. They then try each other's dishes and discuss the merits of each dish.

Goldring Centre for Culinary Medicine collaborates with 25 other medical schools and four residency programmes in the US on research outcomes, curriculum development and future programming.

Dr Harlan says the programme, which is based on Mediterranean diet principles, will allow doctors to give dietary advice to their patients.

The programme is not intended to replace, but rather support, pharmaceutical treatments for patients. He said: "I believe in pharmaceuticals, they've led to a dramatic improvement in patients' lives. But when you add on a healthy diet, you get a lot more bang for your buck."

His programme is not about weight loss either, but rather, the quality of calories one consumes.

The programme also does not duplicate the role of dietitians. He said most people trust their doctors and by equipping doctors with information about food and nutrition, they can give their patients messages that are trusted.

This makes the work of dietitians easier as doctors who are aware of the importance of food can communicate that to patients, he said.

He said incorporating the Mediterranean food philosophy in the local context is possible, as it is not about specific recipes but rather, fundamental principles. This includes eating more legumes, vegetables, fruit and nuts, whole grains, fish and seafood, and less land animal protein and dairy products, using quality oils and fats, and drinking alcohol in moderation.

Doctors in Singapore had mixed responses to the programme.

Dr Alvin Ng, a specialist in cardiology and consultant at Raffles Heart Centre, said: "The Mediterranean diet has been around for many years and many benefits have been accrued to it. Applying it to training in a practical way is meaningful. Adapting it to cultural needs is also important."

Others, like Dr Wong Seng Weng, medical director and consultant medical oncologist at The Cancer Centre, the Singapore Medical Group, were more doubtful.

Dr Wong said: "While diet plays a role in disease prevention, current scientific knowledge in this area has many gaping holes. A lot more research needs to be done.

"Given competing priorities in the tight undergraduate medical curriculum, I am not entirely convinced of the benefit of making such a programme compulsory. Even if we are convinced of some of the programme's merits, we still have a big task in creating an Asian culinary version to be accepted by our population."

Dr Peter Eng, who runs his own practice at the Peter Eng Endocrine Clinic at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, called Dr Harlan's idea "original and useful" and said some training in basic dietary counselling would be useful as patients often ask their doctor for dietary advice.

But he added: "Training doctors to actually cook healthy meals is not necessary and probably too challenging, but it would certainly make an interesting elective posting for medical students."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2016, with the headline What's cooking, doc?. Subscribe