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

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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  • I love that health professionals are getting aboard and actually TEACHING patients how a healthy diet can be easy, and delicious! This is a much better strategy than just telling them they need to eat “better” and sending them off to fend for themselves in our obesogenic food environment. This is great positive change!

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  • I think that we as nutrition professionals should always offer cooking as an option to our clients. As you mentioned in your article- how else can we expect to eat more whole, unprocessed foods? Keeping the recipes simple, encouraging them to try new foods and techniques gives them the confidencs that they CAN actually fit cooking into their hectic schedules!
    Inspiring post!

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  • Thank you for the first rate posts, Janet, including the terrific Chicago Trib piece. Since they called me “Kitchen Physician” 10+ years ago, we’ve reached a tipping point in American medicine, and doctors are becoming interested in food’s effect on disease prevention and treatment.

    Your feature of the Harvard/CIA work will bring more doctors to write recipes on prescription slips, and help patients to cook…and look and feel better with what they eat. Great! And if they need free, fun, healthy, easy recipes, come to ChefMD or search on YouTube.
    John La Puma, MD

  • Fantastic post! You are 100% correct that we cannot help people to live healthier, more nutritious lives without teaching them how to cook those foods. Love this topic!

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  • I cannot agree more. Cooking is such a powerful tool in helping people to better embrace a healthy lifestyle. Personally I had always felt powerless to choose what to eat because I didn’t know how to cook and it seemed like there were so little options for me, but ever since that I’ve learned to cook, I feel so empowered to make better food choices and make myself delicious and healthy food — cooking has really made an impact in my life and I’m sure it can have the same influence in others’ life too!

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  • I feel so many of my clients ,as Ms Katzen said, can name all the celerity chefs but cannot roast a chicken. Yes, there an improvement in nutrition when people cook but cooking also has the ability to boosts confidence and can help us all de-stress. I agree completely that you can’t connect with your food and health without pulling out the cutting board and knife.

  • Janet,

    It’s great that there is even intent to get people back into the kitchen. As a Registered Dietitian who has taught thousands of people about the joys of cooking, I hope that more people will spread the word. Cooking at home is one of the best ways to help people regain their health and vitality and take control of what they eat. A lot of cooking starts with boiling water and almost anyone can do that.

    I offer many easy recipes on my website and love to teach people how simply delicious cooking can be. I am also a big Mollie Katzen fan.
    Thanks for this great post,

  • I was delighted to read your recent Chicago Tribune article, “Make this Recipe and Call Me in the Morning,” as it addresses many of the issues that I deal with on a daily basis as the head of the Natural Gourmet Institute (NGI) in New York City.

    NGI was founded on the principle that what we eat significantly affects our physical, mental and spiritual well-being and we offer myriad classes to train our graduates to embrace this ideology in their professions as personal chefs, caterers, healthy-food entrepreneurs, and authors.

    I agree with Dr. Eisenberg that it is of paramount importance that Americans start learning how to cook healthful, whole foods, as it will drastically improve their health and quality of life, it might be unrealistic to expect our busy medical practitioners to spearhead this important revolution.

    Why not turn instead to those who are already trained to prepare healthy food using only the highest quality ingredients — those who have studied the connection between food and health, as well as correct culinary techniques for plant-based cuisine? At NGI, the graduates of our Chef Training Program specialize in health-supportive cooking and would be the perfect candidates to lead this charge and support the physicians in their new mandate to help patients improve their health through well-chosen, well-prepared meals.

    Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D
    CEO and founder of the Natural Gourmet Institute, author of “Food and Healing,” “The Natural Gourmet” and “The Whole-Food Guide to Strong Bones.”

  • These kind of post are always inspiring and I prefer to read quality content so I happy to find many good point here in the post, writing is simply great, thank you for the post

  • found your site on today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

  • My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

  • i found you through robyn webb’s site and glad i did – i’ll be checking in regularly!

  • Nice article: I do believe in cooking and teaching others good tips and healthy recipes to empower them to cook more often. This has strengthened me as a Dietitian by encouraging and offering alternatives to junk and processed food, fast food habits and high-sodium frozen entrees.

  • This post is near and dear to my heart! As a culinary dietitian, I spend almost every day developing nutritious meals that will help to get people back in the kitchen and on the path to better health. It only takes a few basic cooking methods to build the basis for never-ending variations of nutritious meals. I hope to provide one resource to teach adults as well as kids how to be responsible for their own healthcare.
    Jennifer Cohen Katz RD

  • thanks for sharing relevant info. this really help me in my research.

  • I’ve found your question – “How can you really eat right if you don’t learn to cook? ” very pertinent. I am extremely glad to go through this interesting article on how to cook as a strategy to battle obesity, promote health and fight chronic diseases. I think every one should ponder over this question.

  • More and more people have fallen in to the trap of packaged or container food. But what is more concerning is that they have become examples for their children and family. Due to lack of knowledge and interest, people are eating more and more junk food. Yours is a very encouraging post. I think it is a must read article every body.

  • Organizing this type of healthy lives culinary conference are most essential and necessary organization to acknowledge about Nutritious foods for constant recurring from any diseases.I have great zeal to attend this culinary conference for acquainting completely about all ingredients of my cooked dishes and also its effect on our health.

  • Which is some inspiring things. Didn’t know which opinions might be this particular different. Thank you for all of the excitement to provide these kinds of helpful tips here.

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