Healthy eating 101

Food as medicine: PCOM students trade white coats for aprons

New culinary medicine curriculum is meeting a demand for more nutrition education.


As chronic illnesses increasingly affect more Americans’ health, the link between dietary habits and disease prevention is taking on a larger role in medical schools and physician practices across the country.

A 2017 study of nutrition knowledge in medical students found that more than half of study participants failed a basic nutritional knowledge quiz, highlighting the need for more comprehensive nutrition education. At least one college of osteopathic medicine is heeding that call to action.

First- and second-year DO students at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) can now enroll in a comprehensive four-week Culinary Medicine elective at the COM’s Philadelphia campus.

Based on the curriculum created by the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University, the course incorporates hands-on cooking sessions with comprehensive readings, kitchen safety video tutorials and practice quizzes. Each week, students review their work and then trade their white coats for aprons as they head into their test kitchen for hands-on instruction in healthy cooking led by Chef Budd Cohen, director of dining and catering services at PCOM.

“What many medical students lack in the context of nutrition education is an ability to assimilate the related scientific knowledge—for example, the science of inflammatory processes—and apply it to a specific patient’s lifestyle and nutrition choices,” says Joanne Kakaty-Monzo, DO, co-director of the Culinary Medicine program at PCOM. “An ability to educate a patient regarding the impact of nutritional choices is essential when it comes to preventive medicine. This curriculum empowers students with tools to approach their patients holistically.”

The course, which is a 1-credit elective that is taken for 14 hours over four weeks, showed promise from the start with 150 students signing up for 48 available slots within hours of its offering for the winter term.

Due to its popularity, PCOM is considering expanding the course next academic year by offering it during both fall and winter as well as at its Atlanta campus.

Room for growth

A 2015 study found fewer than 30 percent of medical schools accredited by the Licensing Council for Medical Education were teaching the minimum of 25 hours of nutrition education recommended by the National Research Council’s committee on nutrition in medical education.

A desire to better understand nutrition’s role in health inspired Colin Zhu, DO, to study health-supportive and plant-based culinary arts at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York as well as health coaching at the Institute for Integrative Medicine after he finished medical school in 2011.

“Having been raised by a mother who was a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, which focuses on prevention, wellness and balance of health, I was heavily interested in nutrition. For me, wellness and balance starts with food,” says Dr. Zhu. “So with food the first priority, I needed to know more, and I enrolled myself in culinary school.”

"For me wellness and balance starts with food,” says Dr. Colin Zhu.

The chronic diseases plaguing our nation and contributing to diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart disease, cancer and obesity are largely preventable with proper lifestyle and dietary changes, according to Dr. Zhu, who is board certified in family medicine, OMM and lifestyle medicine and blogs at TheChefDoc.

Teaching patients about healthier lifestyle choices, such as diet, exercise and stress reduction, is a game-changer, Dr. Zhu says. “At the end of the day, what resonates with me are things that can make a big impact on a person’s health, and that’s why I focus a lot of my time on this.”

At PCOM, students are just starting to see the power of nutrition knowledge.

For PCOM’s Dr. Kakaty-Monzo, the need for nutrition education is clear. “Our goal is to be pioneering in offering an innovative curriculum and, in turn, have that reflected in the quality of the medical care our students are able to provide to their patients once they leave PCOM.

“It’s imperative that we add to the nutrition education that we give medical students in order for them to have tools to educate patients and literally show them the links between good nutrition, healthy eating habits and prevention of disease.”

For further reading

Lifestyle medicine track empowers future DOs to encourage healthy choices

Let’s talk about nutrition: 4 ways to advise your patients on what to eat

Half failed this nutrition quiz. Can you pass it?

One comment

  1. Lauren C.

    I absolutely love this idea! Medical School is when I learned about using food as medicine from a wonderful DO and transitioned myself to a Whole Food Plant Based diet after extensive reading. As a pediatric resident in Brooklyn, NY, I spent most of my well child visits counseling about food choices. Even in Pediatric Pulmonary, I still am discussing food choices. I hope this program continues to excel and can take off in other schools as well.

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