Culinary medicine: What is it, and how can it help you?

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The field of culinary medicine continues to grow as more evidence-based research confirms the important role food plays in our health. The belief is if people learn where their foods come from and how to prepare them in different ways that they enjoy, this will increase their likelihood of eating more nutrient-dense foods at home.

We connected with Margaret Raber, DrPH, assistant professor, Health Disparities Research, and Karla Crawford, clinical program manager, Integrative Health Services, to learn about culinary medicine and how MD Anderson has joined in the movement.

What is culinary medicine?

Raber: Culinary medicine is part of a broader movement called “Food is Medicine,” which emphasizes the need to address access and intake of healthy foods when we are trying to prevent or treat diseases, including cancer. Over the last decade, there’s been greater emphasis on culinary medicine training in public health and medical schools; students are learning nutritional science through coursework and teaching kitchens to better counsel patients. Several institutions across the nation have opened teaching kitchens to give students firsthand experience in preparing nutritious foods.

Crawford: Patient education is another important part of culinary medicine. We teach patients, their families and the community how to prepare nutritious foods. This education takes place through teaching kitchens, virtual classes and community outreach programs, which allow us to teach nutrition principles through fun experiences and practical ways. We hope these experiences will encourage participants to prepare healthier foods at home.  

What are the benefits of culinary medicine?

Raber: Culinary medicine can improve lives by helping individuals eat well and explore new foods and cooking techniques. We can help create a diet that caters to an individual’s preferences and teach skills people can integrate into their home food environment. It allows us to stay mindful of cultural differences, how we prepare ingredients to change the nutritional makeup, taste preferences and other things that play a role in whether someone enjoys their food. We want to make sure patients find enjoyment in what they eat. It goes beyond just eating healthy foods.

Why is culinary medicine important?

Crawford: Patients going through cancer treatment may experience side effects, such as a change in taste or appetite, that may impact their diet and intake. Through culinary medicine, we can work with the changes a patient is experiencing. In some instances, we cook together and have them try new foods or a healthier variation of a favorite recipe. Many times, patients are shocked when they enjoy a food that they initially thought would be bland or flavorless. We often hear patients say, “I’ve had more vegetables since partaking in cooking classes than I have had all year.”

Raber: It’s very important that individuals feel empowered to make good diet decisions during cancer treatment, after treatment and even as a preventive measure. But we’ve learned that you cannot just hand out recipes or guidelines to people. My previous research led to the development of the Healthy Cooking Index, which measures the decision variables made during cooking that are relevant to health and cancer prevention. Introducing patients to this way of thinking through experiential learning allows them to enjoy a variety of foods that can provide them with critical nutrients that can help fuel the body, whether they’re healthy individuals, in cancer treatment or no longer in treatment.

What culinary medicine programs does MD Anderson offer for patients and caregivers?

Crawford: At MD Anderson, culinary medicine efforts have been introduced over the years in multiple ways. We have initiatives that help our patients as well as members of the community expand their knowledge of the role their diet choices play in their health, whether from a prevention standpoint or during treatment.

Before the pandemic, the Integrative Medicine Center offered classes in their teaching kitchen where patients, caregivers and staff were taught different ways to prepare foods and introduced to new foods. In the future, we hope to bring a similar experience to patients.

Starting this month, patients and caregivers can attend the virtual Cooking for Optimal Health class through the Integrative Medicine Center. This class is for all patients. Patients who are newly diagnosed or may be transitioning to maintenance therapy will find it very helpful. In this class, the dietitian discusses principles of culinary medicine using the Healthy Cooking Index as a guide. Patients will learn healthy cooking techniques, the importance of a plant-based diet, and the American Institute for Cancer Research dietary guidelines.

How does MD Anderson bring culinary medicine to the broader community?

MD Anderson has a Healthy Living Clinic in our Cancer Prevention Center, and we plan to roll out patient cooking classes soon. In addition, our Be Well Communities™ initiative and Active Living After Cancer program enable MD Anderson to work collaboratively with communities across the Houston area and strategically implement evidence-based strategies to promote health and wellness opportunities, including healthy eating.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.

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