Good Food, Not Pharmaceuticals, Is What Most Patients Need

CC BY 2.0. Fernando de Sousa

Doctors are beginning to prescribe recipes and cooking classes in an effort to improve health in a sustainable way.

Family doctors are finally catching on to the fact that telling people to eat well isn’t good enough; they need to be shown how to do it. Teaching kitchens are springing up across the United States, many of them affiliated with doctors’ offices, children’s hospitals, and universities. Here, patients can take lessons in basic cookery, acquiring skills that make it easier to put healthy, fresh food on their plates every day. It’s a refreshingly practical approach to improving health.

One such doctor is Nimali Fernando, of Spotsylvania, Virginia, who built a teaching kitchen next to her clinic after noticing that many of her patients’ health problems could be traced to dietary shortcomings. The New York Times describes her experience:

“Sometimes parents say their kids have symptoms of anxiety and are wetting the bed and they feel their child needs to see a counselor or needs medication,” Dr. Fernando said. But when she asks about diet, it may be that the child is not eating enough fiber, which leads to constipation. And constipation, in turn, can aggravate the bladder, causing bed-wetting. “That’s when you can connect the dots and see how food is often intertwined in their symptoms.”

The Times lists other food-as-medicine cooking programs, such as Culinary Health Education for Families, run out of the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, which teaches parents and kids how to shop and eat; the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which teaches doctors how to cook; and the Boston Medical Center’s “preventive food pantry,” where low-income patients can use a prescription to access healthy ingredients.

Even hospitals are updating their approach. Bee Wilson writes for The Guardian about Canadian chef Joshna Maharaj taking charge of a Toronto hospital kitchen. Upon starting the role in 2011, Maharaj was shocked to learn there was almost no fresh produce served, nor a fridge in which to store vegetables.

“Sick people were served meatloaf so processed and oily that Maharaj ‘could not find the adjectives’ to describe it. She retrained the chefs, found local suppliers and made the radical decision to serve wholesome, appetizing food for every meal, such as vibrant dals, soothing congee and sweet, roasted beetroot. It was no surprise to her that patient morale and health substantially improved with the new menus.”

These changes bode well for the future of American health and are indicative of a wider trend toward acknowledging home-cooked food’s protective and healing power – something that was once a given, when it was all people had to work with, but then lost its status with the rise of cheap, effective pharmaceuticals (not to mention accessibility to processed food) over the past half-century.

Doctors and hospitals are well-positioned to guide patients toward better eating habits; but, ideally, such education would start much earlier in life, before chronic diseases manifest themselves. Children should be learning how to cook from their parents, and schools should implement cooking classes as a standard part of the curriculum. It’s an excellent connection point for various subjects, such as science, math, health, even history and social studies.

Most importantly, the societal mentality toward cooking deserves a makeover. It should not be viewed as drudgery (a normal reaction when one struggles with a skill), but as a respected domestic art, something to celebrate, admire, and constantly strive to improve. After all, our survival depends on it.