Doctor Approved and Tastes Great Too?

May 05, 2014

The latest from Food, Nutrition & Science.

We’ve heard it before and we’ll hear it again. Obesity is an epidemic. While encouraging people to eat healthier is a good idea in theory, in practice this process is not as simple as it seems. The food industry is currently tackling one of its greatest challenges – making healthy foods craveable. Yet this challenge is one that doctors are facing too. What happens when the MD that tells you to change your diet lacks the skills to prepare the good-tasting food he or she is asking you to make – and eat?

Physicians increasingly recognize that our food choices affect our health, but few are prepared to help people make science-based food choices that meet consumers’ lifestyle needs. On the other end of the spectrum are chefs – flavor experts who can help healthcare professionals understand and appreciate the role flavor plays when it comes to consumers choosing and enjoying healthful foods and beverages. Bridging the gap between them are Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) who understand food and nutrition, as well as lifestyle issues that affect how people make food choices. And this is where Healthy Kitchen, Healthy Lives comes in.

Every spring, the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference (stemming out of a relationship between The Culinary Institute and Harvard School of Public Health, Department of Nutrition) brings together an audience of more than 500 healthcare professionals, typically composed of 70% percent physicians and 15% Registered Dietitian Nutritionists. The remaining 15% of the audience is made up of other healthcare professionals like nurses, psychologists, and social workers; healthcare executives; and culinary professionals, including chefs who work in hospital foodservice.

Participants in the program have the opportunity to learn about, sample, and prepare foods in The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone’s Teaching Kitchens under the direction of professional chef educators. Meals served throughout the course are an intrinsic part of the curriculum because the way food tastes relates directly to a patient’s adoption of a diet. Flavor, as it turns out, is a health issue.

The primary reason we choose the foods and beverages we do time and time again is because we like the way they taste. The only way health-promoting foods and beverages can compete with less healthful options is through appealing flavor as well as through appealing messages. Think about the difference between something that is described as ‘healthy’ versus something that is described as ‘creamy, crispy, or smoky.’ We at The Culinary Institute of America refer to this as ‘seducing the consumer through the language of flavor.’ If you ask 100 consumers, ‘Do you want to eat something healthy?’ you may get 10 percent who say yes. But if you ask those same people, ‘Do you want to eat something that is creamy, crispy or smoky?’ you’ll get a much larger agreement,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, Senior Director of Programs and Culinary Nutrition for The Culinary Institute of America and co-director of the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference.

Myrdal Miller points out that low-fat diets and products have done nothing to curb obesity in this country, and for many people, the replacement of fat with refined carbohydrates has done damage to their health. Replacing dietary fat with refined carbohydrates increases risk of heart disease and type II diabetes. But there are many people, including many physicians, who still believe low-fat diets and products are the better choice compared to moderate fat diets that are often more flavorful, healthful, and appealing. Myrdal Miller says that it is this complete package – the allure, the flavors and the health benefits – that can go a long way toward promoting health and healthful eating.

Many healthcare professionals talk about food as if it were medicine, but food is not a treatment. It’s part of our lifestyle, our conversations, our cultures. Chefs and culinary nutrition professionals know this, and the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives initiative is helping more and more healthcare professionals appreciate this. Food is something to be enjoyed, including the process of shopping for, preparing, and cooking the food. We talk about the appealing aromas, colors, and textures of food. We also talk about ‘the Zen act of chopping,’ that rhythmic noise a chef’s knife makes on a cutting board as you’re chopping fresh produce,” says Myrdal Miller.

Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives is helping physicians appreciate food and culinary issues, but it’s also helping culinary professionals understand nutrition science. Chefs are consumers, too, and they get confused by all the conflicting media reports about sodium, low-fat diets, and the best weight loss diets. Chefs involved in Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives come away with a better understanding of the science, where nutrition researchers agree, and where more research is needed. 

“When we launched Worlds of Healthy Flavors in 2004, the chefs in the audience sat back in their chairs and listened. Today they lean in, so to speak, eager to get more information and inspiration. The dining public’s attitude toward health and nutrition is changing, and the volume foodservice community recognizes this. They are eager to use the science to make the best ingredient choices and to use their culinary knowledge to create the best flavors,” says Myrdal Miller. 

Physicians who attend Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives are encouraged to find Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) and chefs in their communities who they can partner with to develop programs. Physicians can only know and do so much. A physician who spends 8-12 minutes with a patient can’t accomplish as much as an RDN who can spend 30 to 60 minutes with a patient. Likewise, seeing patients one-by-one may not be as effective as working with groups of patients in hands-on cooking classes. 

“We discuss a variety of models that can work in a variety of settings,” says Myrdal Miller.

While integrating more nutrition into medical schools is another recommendation that can better prepare physicians to address obesity and nutrition with patients, there is also a general lack of lifestyle skills training in our nation’s schools that needs to be addressed, says Myrdal Miller. Simple home economics classes, for example, can help ensure that every student finishes high school with a basic understanding of how to shop for and prepare a healthful balanced meal, and this is more important than it seems. Our ability to prepare a healthy meal – that tastes great – could actually help curb the obesity crisis.

“Cooking has become a spectator sport in this country; we need to make sure students (doctors, chefs and consumers, alike) develop culinary confidence and competence so that they feel comfortable in a kitchen, holding a knife, reading a recipe, and preparing a healthful, flavorful meal,” she adds.