How to help patients eat better? One Philly med school says, teach their doctors to cook

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A pilot program at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine gives students lessons on nutrition.

A pilot program at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine gives students lessons on nutrition. (Renee Cree)

Medical student Max Piraneo is zesting a lemon, part of a rub for a whole roast chicken he and his team are preparing in a converted kitchen at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Also on the menu? Pork tenderloin, mango chutney, and a quinoa salad with fresh vegetables. For desert, muffins made with zucchini.

Based on a program at Tulane University in New Orleans, this four-week course is called Culinary Medicine, and it’s part of a pilot program at the college to boost students’ knowledge of nutrition. The idea is that by teaching doctors how to cook the good stuff, they can give their patients the right advice when it comes to changing their diets.

Generally, nutrition in medical schools is lacking around the nation,” said Dr. Farzaneh Daghigh, who runs the program along with another doctor, Joanne Kakaty-Monzo, and specializes in nutrition and biochemistry.

Since there’s so much material for students to get through in medical school, nutrition has never been a major part of curricula. Now, patients and doctors are realizing that food needs to be part of the conversation.

Daghigh says just look at how many Americans are obese — current estimates say its about 40 percent of us. And then there’s Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke — all conditions that can often be improved or prevented by better eating.

What’s nice about this is you can talk to your patient before the disease process happens,” said Kakaty-Monzo. “It’s not just about treatment with nutrition. It’s about prevention of disease with nutrition.”

Depending on the patient, nutrition-savvy doctors often recommend the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet (dietary approaches to stop hypertension), which limits sodium. The DASH diet also helps lower blood pressure, especially in patients who don’t have a family history of high blood pressure.

After the students finish cooking, they present their meals to the group. Each then takes a small healthy portion back to a dining room table.

“It’s amazing. It’s really fresh,” says student Sonia Samuel, diving into  the meal .

Growing up, her parents made South Indian dishes that favored spices over salt. When they were growing up in India, nothing was processed.

The class has made her think about the benefits of that traditional diet versus what we eat here — what nutritionists call the “standard American diet” or SAD, which is rich in red meat and processed food.

“I come from a really big family. We’d go through 6 gallons of milk and 6 gallons of ice cream every week,” says  student Kelly Mulquin.

During the course, Mulquin said she learned that dairy can contribute to inflammation, and chronic inflammation can compromise good health. She’s recommended that her family stop eating so much of it.

Piraneo, who thinks the class could give him an edge over other doctors, said his friends complain that their providers don’t know much about nutrition.

“It’s like, if you’re ignoring it, then you’re kind of doing a disservice to your patients in the community,” he says.

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