Nutrition Rx: Cooking as a Strategy to Battle Obesity, Promote Health and Fight Chronic Diseases

IMG_0824I’m a firm believer in the power of cooking.

I think it’s truly one of the  best ways we can all take better control of our health.

How can you really eat right if you don’t learn to cook?

How can we implement all of today’s dietary guidelines without making our own meals — or at least more often.

But do most people in this country have the confidence they need in the kitchen?  Or have we seen culinary literacy decline to the point that people are lost without a heavy reliance on foods in a package or take-out container.

That’s the focus of my article in the Chicago Tribune: Make This Recipe and Call Me In the Morning.


I was inspired to write this article after attending the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference at the Culinary Insitute of America at Greystone.  Maybe you remember me writing about this culinary conference for health professionals, which is a joint project of the CIA and Harvard Medical School.

The conference was spearhead by David M. Eisenberg, MD (pictured above), who is the director of the division of research and education in complementary and integrative medical therapies for Harvard Medical School.  This doc is  on a mission to get America cooking — and he wants physicians to be major evangelists for this movement.  He believes cooking — and appreciating good quality food in a mindful manner — may be the best long-term solution to help America battle obesity and chronic medical conditions.

get_cooking_cover_300One of the speakers during this 3-day conference was Mollie Katzen, who I also interviewed for my Chicago article.  Mollie is undoubtedly one of my earliest food influencers.

Who doesn’t adore her classic Moosewood cookbook…which was the first cookbook I remember buying.

Now she’s written a new book called “Get Cooking: 150 Simple Recipes to Get You Started in the Kitchen “(Harper Collins, 2009).  She told me that she was urged to write the book by her grown children who are now living on their own.

She said her kids could recite the names of all these celebrity chefs but they didn’t know how to roast a chicken.  Mollie said:

We may be living in a culture that is highly culinary aware, yet this “food as entertainment” trend has not taught people to cook.  There’s a skill set that has been lost.

That’s so true.

As a registered dietitian, I think it’s really important to go beyond talking about grams of fat, % of calories and milligrams of nutrients.  We can’t just urge people to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains or shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid processed foods without arming them with the culinary skills they need to implement this advice.  Culinary training and nutrition education should be joined at the hip.   And that’s what this CIA conference was really all about.

Hope you enjoy my article, which is reprinted below:

Copyright (c) 2010, Chicago Tribune http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Make this recipe and call me in the morning
Doctors hope to fight obesity by teaching patients how to cook healthfully

By Janet Helm, Special to Tribune Newspapers

Copyright, Chicago Tribune Copyright, Chicago Tribune

Imagine the day your doctor hands you a recipe instead of a prescription. Or what if hospitals were equipped with teaching kitchens where patients could trade in their hospital gowns for aprons before being discharged.

That’s the vision of Dr. David Eisenberg, who is on a mission to get America cooking. And he wants doctors to be the major drivers of the movement.

Eisenberg, who heads up the complementary and integrative medicine division at Harvard Medical School, forged a partnership with the Culinary Institute of America to help physicians get more comfortable in the kitchen.

The culinary conferences that he helps lead are not simply to encourage doctors to get in touch with their inner Julia Child. It’s to arm them with the knowledge and skills they need to inspire their patients to start cooking – which Eisenberg believes is one of best strategies to battle obesity and chronic medical conditions in this country.

“We need to first teach the teachers,” he said. “A physician’s own behavior is one of the strongest predictors of how they’ll counsel their patients.”

That’s why Eisenberg wants to see physicians roll up their sleeves and start cooking.

Then he wants doctors to transfer their passion for good food to their patients – who he said often feel overwhelmed at the thought of getting dinner on the table.

Culinary literacy has plummeted in this country, Eisenberg said. “Many people simply don’t have basic cooking skills.”

We’ve been going back to our homes for meals, but how we’re preparing food is quite different compared to a generation ago, according to Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst with the NPD Group and author of Eating Patterns in America. The definition of cooking has changed, he said.  Now it’s more likely to mean assembling and heating – and probably in the microwave, which has experienced a surge in popularity in the past few years, along with frozen foods.

For the first time, the lasagna eaten at home is more likely to be thawed from the freezer rather than made from scratch. If food doesn’t come in a box with instructions, many people are just not sure what to do.

While they may constantly hear about the virtues of fresh, whole and unprocessed food, and are told to eat more vegetables, whole grains and plant-based meals, people often feel ill-equipped to implement this advice.

Even with the wildly popular television cooking shows, many people are not active in their own kitchens.

Has cooking become a spectator sport? That’s what  Robyn Webb is worried about. “Food has become so glamorized, but the basic skills are missing.”

Webb is one of a growing number of culinary dietitians who combine nutrition counseling with hands-on cooking instructions. She works with clients in their own kitchens in the Washington, D.C., area to help them buy and prepare nutritious meals.

“It’s not enough to tell people to eat 20 grams of this or one-half cup of that,” she said. “They need to be able to translate that into food choices and learn how to do it.”

Webb often starts with knife skills, a lesson on how to select cookware and an overview of basic cooking techniques, such as roasting, sauteing and stir-frying.  Many home cooks are told to limit sodium, sugar and fat, she said, yet they don’t know how to do that in their own kitchens and still prepare food that tastes good – while being quick, easy and affordable.

Almost everyone is aware of what they should be doing to eat well, said Mollie Katzen, author of the new “Get Cooking: 150 Simple Recipes to Get You Started in the Kitchen.” Now they need to learn the “how” part of the equation.

One approach may be to bring back a defunct high school requirement: home economics.  That’s the solution proposed by two health professionals in the May 12 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Many parents never learned to cook and instead rely on restaurants, takeout food, frozen meals and packaged food as basic fare. Many children seldom experience what a true home-cooked meal tastes like, much less see what goes into preparing it,” according to the commentary titled “Bring Back Home Economics Education,” written by Alice H. Lichtenstein and David S. Ludwig.

“A renovated home economics curriculum could equip young adults with the skills essential to lead long, healthy lives and reverse the trends of obesity and diet-related disease.”

They believe a mandatory food preparation curriculum in school will also help young people develop a healthy relationship with food and be less tempted to follow fad diets. They conclude that it may be among the best investments society could make.

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