What Exactly Is Culinary Medicine?

Historically, this last week of January is when new year’s better-eating resolutions take a nosedive straight into a bowl of M&Ms. Some blame it on American football’s tradition of Superbowl Sunday—even the best intentions are insufficient ammunition against the big game’s siege of fast finger food and four sedentary TV hours.

But what if in anticipation of the lapse, a doctor sent a couple of recipes for quick-cooking snack food that isn’t junk—and is maybe even beneficial for your health? Late last year Timothy Harlan, M.D., spoke at the James Beard Foundation Food Conference on a fresh concept that may be pivotal to improving America’s health and bringing our medical costs under control: culinary medicine.

Culinary medicine is a new facet to medical education at the Tulane School of Medicine Teaching Kitchen at the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, the first of its kind in America. The school offers classes for medical students, community lessons, and Continuing Medical Education courses to teach doctors and health professionals cooking and nutrition basics, which they then pass on to patients.

Through Tulane’s partnership with Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts, aspiring chefs teach in the Center’s kitchen. Beyond sautéing and chopping, the courses teach flavor building without relying on salt and fat, shopping skills, and building a healthy pantry. A doctor who understands the difference between taste (perceived only by the tongue) and flavor (a multisensory, emotional experience perceived by the tongue, nose, and brain) empathizes with a patient struggling to lose weight more easily. The Center arms medical professionals with more to offer suffering patients than pamphlets and advice to “eat less, exercise more.” (Probably everyone knows by now that’s the way to lose weight—a “how” would be appreciated.)

The kitchen is also a community hub. On the high end, $200 buys a celebrity chef dinner ticket featuring big names like James Beard Award-winning Chef John Besh serving a meal you won’t spend hours in the gym working off.  Low-cost classes on cooking basics such as sensible breakfasts are open to the public, including residents of the surrounding New Orleans area (where the obesity rate is five percentage points higher than the national average). Wellness events at the Center feature medical student volunteers assessing blood pressure, Body Mass Index, and other health indicators.

Medical students already have a lot on their plates. Still, 10 medical schools have licensed Tulane’s culinary medicine curriculum. As Harlan explains, the education gives physicians powerful tools to provide better medicine.

People who can’t cook for themselves will always be at the mercy of others’ opinions of what is delicious, healthful, or worth eating. And in danger of eating only what others who can cook (or, more frequently, others who process and package food) think you should eat. To take full charge of wellness, there is no health without culinary health.