Medical school culinary medicine programs grow despite limited funding



Farshad Fani Marvasti, MD, MPH, is part of a growing movement to fundamentally shift medical education to include training on how to cook healthy meals.

Farshad Fani Marvasti, MD, MPH

Dr. Farshad Fani Marvasti

The way he sees it, the stakes couldn’t be higher. He believes doctors need to see food as medicine to be able to stem the tide of chronic disease.

About 6 in 10 adults in the United States live with chronic diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, costing $4.1 trillion in annual health care costs. Adult obesity rates are rising, as are obesity-related conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

To turn the tide, Dr. Marvasti created a culinary medicine program in 2020 in collaboration with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension and local chefs.

Dr. Marvasti, who is board certified in family medicine, graduated from the University of Arizona, Phoenix, where he serves as the director of the medical school’s Culinary Medicine Program.

The program offers an elective course for third- and fourth-year medical students, which introduces the evidence-based field of culinary medicine. Dr Marvasti’s goal is for the course to teach students how to use this science and the joy of cooking to improve long-term health outcomes for their patients.

As part of Dr. Marvasti’s program, students learn cooking fundamentals through chef demonstrations and hands-on practice – to teach students how food can be used to prevent and treat many chronic diseases.

One of the dishes students learn to make includes a quinoa salad made with cucumber, onion, bell peppers, corn, cherry tomatoes, beans, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice. Another recipe includes a healthier take on dessert: Dark chocolate mousse made with three large, ripe avocados, dark chocolate powder, three tablespoons of agave or maple, coconut cream, nondairy milk, salt, and vanilla. Dr. Marvasti and his team are set to build out the existing program to develop additional resources for medically underserved and rural communities in Arizona, according to a statement from the university. These plans will be funded by a $750,000 grant from Novo Nordisk.

“We’re going to develop an open education curriculum to share, so it’s open access to everyone,” said Dr. Marvasti, who is also director of Public Health, Prevention and Health Promotion and an associate professor at the university. “It can be adaptable at the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate level.”

Dr. Marvasti and his colleagues at the University of Arizona aren’t alone. In fact, culinary medicine programs are sprouting some serious legs.

Culinary medicine programs catch on

Jaclyn Albin, MD, CCMS, an associate professor in the departments of internal medicine and pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, conducted a scoping review of the literature on culinary medicine programs for medical students.* Her purpose was to learn how the programs were structured and how they assessed student knowledge and attitudes regarding nutrition counseling for patients.

Jaclyn Albin, MD, CCMS, associate professor, University of Texas, Dallas

Dr. Jaclyn Albin

Dr. Albin and her colleagues performed an initial literature search between June 1 and Aug. 1, 2020, of papers published between Jan. 1, 2012, and Aug. 1, 2020 – excluding some newer programs such as the one at the University of Arizona. The results of their research were published in Academic Medicine.

Ultimately, the authors identified and examined 34 programs offering medical student–focused culinary medicine courses.

Program instructors typically included a team of physicians, dietitians, chefs, and other professionals, the study found.

Most program participants exclusively taught medical students, though the training years of participants varied among programs, and they included first-, second-, third-, and fourth-year students. Some programs allowed students from outside their respective medical school to participate in the trainings.

As for the formats of the program, most included cohorts of 10-20 students attending multiple 2- to 3-hour sessions over the course of several months. The University of Alabama at Birmingham offers one of the longest courses, which spans 4-5 months, according to the paper. In contrast, the University of Rochester (N.Y.) program offers only a 1-day lab divided into four sessions, with each session lasting about 2 hours.

The culinary medicine programs’ course sessions tended to include a 10- to 30-minute didactic session involving videos, research articles, culinary theories, and other lectures, a 60- to 90-minute hands-on cooking session, and a 30-minute discussion around nutrition, culture, and patient care.

Most programs used pre- and post-program surveys to evaluate outcomes, though results varied between programs, according to the study. While each program evaluation had different metrics, the surveys generally revealed students felt more confident discussing dietary interventions with patients and in their own cooking skills following completion.


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