Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Doctors learning how to wield the knife, but not for surgery

The connection between healthy eating and good health is no longer surprising news for most Americans and their physicians. However, even though doctors treat patients struggling with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, many of them pass through medical school with little knowledge of nutrition. And while your doctor may not be cooking you dinner every night, research has shown that physicians who engage in healthful behaviors are more likely to advise their patients to do the same. In other words, the more your doctor knows about healthy eating and cooking, the better he/she will be prepared to give you advice on how to avoid chronic diseases that are linked with unhealthy food choices such as obesity and diabetes. This idea is catching on. A recent article published in The New York Times chronicles some physicians’ commitment to healthy food and how they use that knowledge to better treat their patients.

Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives was founded eight years ago by Dr. David Eisenberg, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, as a collaboration between the university and The Culinary Institute of America to teach medical professionals how to select, purchase, and prepare healthy foods. The goal is to learn about healthy foods that can reduce disease risk and replace unhealthy habits. Or as one physician attendee of a recent conference said, “I’d love to be put out of work.” Dr. Eisenberg would like to see teaching kitchens in medical schools and hospitals and some physicians are following his lead. One doctor interviewed in the article holds a culinary boot camp in the 2,400 square food kitchen and lecture room built below his medical office. Another physician bought a farm and often runs into her patients when selling eggs at the local farmers’ market.

These efforts are inspiring and depict a shift in the traditional model of how doctors usually treat their patients, i.e. “a pill for every ill” as one doctor put it. But we are still a long way from doctors’ offices being equipped with teaching kitchens or from doctors regularly prescribing healthy food as a way to avoid or manage chronic conditions. Bronx Health REACH has stressed the importance of nutrition and healthy food choices in much of its programming, including the Culinary Initiative in churches and its partnership with New York City public schools, such as the Seeds in the Middle program at P.S. 221 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and the food access and sustainability curriculum at M.S. 328 in Washington Heights, Manhattan. The Institute for Family Health, Bronx Health REACH’s parent organization, provides WIC (Women, Infant, and Child) services to its patients, which is a special nutrition education service that provides healthy food to mothers and young children. The Institute also employs a number of case workers that seek to coordinate care for the patients and provide them with services outside of the patient-provider relationship. There is a movement underway to integrate nutrition with traditional treatment regimens and it will continue to grow. If that’s the case, we hopefully will see more doctors wielding knives to teach their patients how to chop vegetables rather than using them to conduct surgery.

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