Harvard Women's Health Watch

Putting clinicians in the kitchen could help spread the healthy eating message

The last time you saw a doctor for a checkup or other medical reason, she or he probably also asked about your health habits, such whether you smoke, take alcohol, exercise, or use sunscreen or seat belts. Such personal health behaviors have a huge impact on health and mortality, and public health guidelines urge clinicians talk to their patients about them. You probably were not asked what you ate for dinner last night, or what your usual breakfast fare is. But if some Harvard Medical School nutrition experts and their culinary partners have their way, such questions will become as routine as blood pressure checks, and doctors will be dispensing meal preparation advice as readily as they advise patients about the benefits of quitting smoking. Through a collaboration of the Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), doctors, nurses, nutritionists, and other health care professionals can take a four-day crash course in the latest findings in nutrition research combined with hands-on classes in selecting and preparing healthy foods at the CIA's Greystone campus in California's Napa Valley (see photo below). Attendees listen to researchers talk about glycemic load, genes and food, and good fats and bad fats, and are instructed in the basics, such as how to use a chef's knife, stock the kitchen, and evaluate olive oil. The goal? Turn clinicians into ambassadors for change in the way American eats. "Many people eat too much and don't make the best choices as to what to eat," says Dr. David Eisenberg, director of the Osher Research Center at HMS, who came up with the idea for the HMS/CIA "Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives" program. It will take efforts on many fronts to improve the country's eating habits, but clinicians' offices are a good place to start. Studies have shown a link between physicians' health habits — like fat consumption, weight control, getting a flu shot, alcohol use, exercise, and smoking — and their likelihood of discussing these issues with their patients. Moreover, patients say that clinicians who talk about their own healthy habits are more believable. Eisenberg and his colleagues believe that clinicians who know how to shop for, prepare, and enjoy nutritious, appealing meals are more likely to counsel patients on their eating habits, and in practicing what they preach, become convincing role models.
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