According to recent polling, less than one in eight visits to physicians include any counseling or discussion about nutrition and more than 75 percent of physicians feel their medical school training didn't prepare them to speak with patients about diet and nutrition.
In the mid-1980s, the National Academy of Sciences published a landmark report recommending that medical school students receive at least 25 hours of nutrition education. By 2010, however, a study published by University of North Carolina researchers found that only 25 percent of medical schools required a dedicated nutrition course and students received, on average only 19.6 hours of nutrition instruction, down from 22.3 hours in 2004.
Earlier this summer, a group of three influential US organizations—the American College of Sports Medicine, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, and the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC)—released a white paper recognizing the nation's many diet-related health crises and recommending, among other things, major reforms to medical education.
Highlighting the growing obesity epidemic and its impact on diabetes and metabolic syndrome rates, the paper calls for a standard nutrition curriculum for medical schools and suggests that licensing and certification exams should include more nutrition content.
Senator Bill Frist, co-chair of the BPC and a medical doctor himself, observed, "In medical school and as practicing physicians, we focus so much on disease and cure, but when the biggest killers in our country are diseases related to lifestyle choices—specifically cardiac disease and obesity—it does not make sense to know how to do a heart transplant without also knowing how to prevent the potential need for one."
Leading the Way
Some medical schools are already ramping up nutrition education, especially the University of North Carolina and the University of Colorado, both of which were recognized in the white paper. Absent from the paper, however, was perhaps the most progressive program in the country from a nutritional perspective. In 2012, Tulane University Medical School in New Orleans launched the first-ever culinary medical program.
Timothy Harlan, who is both a medical doctor and a chef, runs the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane. To better prepare future physicians, they offer an innovative curriculum, including hands-on culinary training. A typical lesson could begin with biochemistry, then go into physiology, then progress into cooking instruction with chef Leah Sarris.
The Goldring Center isn't just for doctors. Through an exchange program with Johnson & Wale's culinary school, health-conscious chefs can come do a rotation at Tulane. Todd Seyfarth, chair of J&W's department of culinary nutrition, commented, "It's odd to me that chefs often neglect nutrition education as part of their training. A chef who masters healthy cooking can deliver enjoyment to customers, and at the same time nourish their bodies."
As a health-conscious chef and someone who studies nutrition, I have been anticipating this trend for many years. The culinary and medical fields must integrate, as both are responsible for keeping people healthy. Perhaps it's because they have been so dissociated that lifestyle diseases have become so prevalent.
Does the idea of doctors working in the F&B industry sound odd? Can you imagine medical clinics employing professional chefs to work directly with patients? This is the future I see. Change is in the air. Nutrition is starting to be taken very seriously, and not just for young adults studying to become professionals.
Nutrition belongs to everyone, not only to those who dedicate their lives to its study. If you have a body, you have a certain inherent responsibility to learn and understand its operating system, at least the UK government seems to think so. Starting this year, the national curriculum in England must include nutrition and healthy cooking instruction. According to the Department of Education, instilling a love of cooking "open[s] a door to one of the great expressions of human creativity. Learning how to cook is a crucial life skill that enables pupils to feed themselves and others."
Hippocrates once said food is medicine. Although we momentarily forgot this crucial insight during the past century's synthetic food devolution, the future of medicine, by all indications, will embrace and be guided by the culinary wisdom of our ancestors. More and more people are realizing that health starts in the kitchen, just as it always did.
Christopher James Clark is the author of the critically acclaimed, three-time award-winning book, Nutritional Grail: Ancestral Wisdom, Breakthrough Science, and the Dawning Nutritional Renaissance. Visit his Nutritional Grail Blog for original recipes and articles.