Why your doctor should cook

Good health doesn't start in a pill bottle. Does your physician agree?

When you choose a doctor, perhaps you check to see where she went to medical school, or where he did his residency and fellowship. But when it comes to being able to navigate health and wellness choices—is a cleanse a good idea? How about Paleo and detox teas?—knowing whether your physicians know their way around the kitchen just may be equally important.

Unfortunately, the majority of medical schools offer a paltry amount of nutrition education to doctors-in-training. “A survey from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that 71 percent of medical schools fail to offer the minimum 25 hours of nutrition education during the entire four years of med school and as a result many doctors don’t have a deep understanding of nutrition,” says Emine Ercikan Abali, Ph.D., an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where she manages a newly-established culinary medicine education program. And within that (paltry) amount of nutrition education they're getting, they're probably not getting hands-on cooking experience, which is the only way to understand the practical considerations of making wholesome food. “Research has shown that doctors' own health practices can influence their patients’ health choices.”

What this means, among other things, is that doctors aren't always able to give informed, realistic eating advice, nor make a confident referral to a nutritionist, says Kathryn Thompson, Ph.D., a registered dietician-nutritionist and a professor of biomedical sciences at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Maine. Healthy patients often want information on anything from maca to magnesium, or what to eat before and after back-to-back cycling class. “Ideally, your doctor truly knows what goes into cooking a balanced meal, can suggest specific, healthy ingredients and has good contacts with other clinicians who have even deeper knowledge,” says Thompson.

Thankfully, change is coming to medical education. Currently, 24 medical schools have adopted the “culinary medicine” program from Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, La., says Timothy Harlan, M.D., a chef-turned-internist who has run the pioneering program since it began in 2012. The courses emphasize the role healthful cooking techniques play in living a healthy and active life. Where another doctor might simply exhort his patients to up their iron or fiber intake, a doctor who has taken these kinds of courses will be better able to connect classroom to grocery store and to the kitchen.

Down the line, there may be a certificate that doctors who have completed the culinary medicine program could hang on the wall. In the meantime, in order to know if your physician can not only diagnose but can slice and dice, simply raise the topic of nutrition and cooking. Ask a specific question, or seek overall guidance and see how comfortable or enthusiastic your doctor is about it, says Abali.

In the meantime, at your next appointment, consider asking your doctor “Hey, what’s for dinner?”