Opinion Editorial

Nov 8, 2021

Why Physicians should know Culinary Medicine

Nearly 40% of Americans are obese and ~40% of non-obese Americans have some form of metabolic disease. Seeing a physician who can help you make better food choices can save you time, money and stress.

Dr. Basma Faris

“Culinary medicine is a new evidence-based field in medicine that blends the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine.Culinary medicine is aimed at helping people reach good personal medical decisions about accessing and eating high-quality meals that help prevent and treat disease and restore well-being.” John LaPuma, MD  

When I first read this, and other similar definitions it struck a nerve. It sounded a lot like the definition of Dietetics. Isn’t it what I learned to do when I became a Registered Dietitian? Why should I, a former dietitian, now physician, become certified in Culinary Medicine?

What I’ve since realized that Culinary Medicine isn’t just a rebranding of Dietetics for physicians, it’s a multi-disciplinary approach to nutrition that strengthens the Physician-Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) relationship. It also aims to mesh Nutrition Science with Medical Science and the Culinary Arts.

Historically speaking Nutrition Science has been almost absent from the Allopathic Medical School curriculums in the United States. The AAMC recommends medical students receive 25 hours minimum of nutrition instruction. In 2013, 71% of medical schools failed to meet this requirement. Yet incidences of obesity and metabolic disease continue to rise. Nearly 40% of Americans are obese and approximately 40% of non-obese Americans have some form of metabolic disease. Genetics and medication side effects play a role but our food system is the big culprit. It is a systems problem and not one of individual personal failures.Our healthcare system is overwhelmed and underprepared. 

Culinary Medicine as a postgraduate discipline can serve multiple purposes: it can help fill the knowledge gap for clinicians who have already completed medical school. Certified Culinary Medicine Specialist (CCMS) physicians can serve as faculty to train medical students and residents in Culinary Medicine and Nutrition. CCMS can help to promote Nutrition Science as an integral part of medical science.  We can ensure that future generations of physicians are not lacking in this crucial area of medicine.

Culinary Medicine differs from other similar subspecialties like Lifestyle Medicine, Integrative Medicine and Obesity Medicine in that food and nutrition is the focus, full stop.  It is not an adjunct. It acknowledges nutrition as a crucial component of health, and it focuses on food not nutrients. It examines the evidence and makes food recommendations. 

Not every physician can or will be a Culinary Medicine specialist, but Culinary Medicine can be incorporated into every day practice. At minimum physicians should be able to screen for at risk food practices and refer to specialists like a RDN or CCMS. Specialists should know nutrition as it pertains to their specialty. 

Patients benefit in many ways. Being able to see a physician who can help them make better food choices may be more efficient and cost effective for them as RDNs are not always covered by insurance. The inclusion of nutrition screening and counseling in physicians visits shows the patient that their physician deems it important, and that in and of itself may sway patients to make healthy eating choices. I have also found that when I initiate the conversation about food, patients are more likely to seek out other sources and more likely to see a nutritionist. 

Telemedicine and social media and the COVID-19 pandemic have changed the way we practice medicine. Culinary Medicine is well suited for these platforms. As we transform how we deliver medical care, this is an opportunity to transform what is being delivered. CCMS can offer solid, evidence based nutrition advice via social media, in virtual class form or by one on one telemedicine visits. These new venues allow CCMS to go into patient’s homes and kitchens and vice versa.

The public benefits because nutrition advice is so confusing and contradictory and is subject to trends. Generalized diets don’t take into account a patient's medical history, barriers to healthy eating or culture. Culinary Medicine, combined with technology is an opportunity for us to provide customized, personalized nutrition advice like never before. 

For physicians considering becoming certified in Culinary Medicine I offer you this. I have two degrees in Nutrition practiced as a Registered Dietitian and I still found it to be a valuable refresher as the science is rapidly changing. It does not provide you with nearly the amount of nutrition I received in my training however it gives you a foundation from which to grow. Even if you don’t know how to cook, you will learn culinary skills and teaching tools to educate others. You will network with other like minded health care professionals and contribute to a movement. Nutrition Science is Medical Science and Culinary Medicine is the specialty.

For more information, go to culinarymedicine.org

Dr Basma Faris is a Registered Dietitian turned Obstetrician & Gynecologist and Certified Culinary Medicine Specialist. She practices in NYC where she lives with her family.