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Bringing Culinary Medicine to Yale’s New Teaching Kitchen

June 20, 2023
by Serena Crawford

Nate Wood, MD, instructor of medicine (general medicine), grew up in a family that was passionate about food.

“We spent a lot of time cooking at home—we had family recipes passed down from generation to generation—and eating big meals on holidays,” he said. “We had gardens that we would share produce from, and we were at the farmers’ market frequently.”

His family often talked about the connection between diet and disease, Wood added, sparking his interest in medicine. Wood decided he wanted to become a doctor when he broke his leg in eighth grade.

But during medical school, Wood couldn’t stop thinking about cooking. “I remember being in an anatomy lab for hours and dreaming about going home and making coq au vin,” he said. “I realized then that food for me was never going to be just a hobby—it was going to be part of my work and my passion and my career.”

Wood took a year off between his third and fourth years at Wayne State University School of Medicine to go to culinary school, during which time he also taught a culinary medicine course to fellow medical students. To prepare for the class, he created a new curriculum—with recipes, learning objectives, and nutrition guides—because there was nothing like it at the time in Detroit, where he was training.

“We ended up with 20 students in the class, and it was really fun,” he said. “I knew I wanted to teach culinary medicine for the rest of my life."

Wood came to Yale in 2019 for his residency in internal medicine. At the time, he could not find a space to continue teaching culinary medicine, but during the COVID pandemic, he was able to offer classes virtually to physician assistant students and residents at Yale.

Food is a problem, but it can also be a solution, especially if we can bridge the gap among physicians, dietitians, chefs, and patients.

Nate Wood, MD, Chef

When the Irving and Alice Brown Teaching Kitchen at Yale New Haven Health’s new Digestive Health Center in North Haven opened in April in partnership with Yale Medicine, Wood jumped at the opportunity to teach Yale medical students in person.

“The idea for the class started back in 2012, when I learned about the first medical school teaching kitchen in the country, the only one at the time,” he said. “Now, a quarter of medical schools have a culinary medicine program, and I hope Yale can be a leader in educating others in how to advance this field in an evidence-based way.”

Bridging the Gap Among Physicians, Dietitians, and Chefs

In working with the nutrition community, Wood has come across a significant amount of knowledge gaps and misinformation among physicians, dietitians, and chefs.

Dietitians are experts in planning a healthy diet but don’t necessarily know how to cook, Wood says. Chefs know how to cook but don’t receive nutrition education as part of their training. Physicians, Wood adds, are educated in neither cooking nor nutrition, even though everyone looks to them first for information. In addition, the word “healthy” is poorly defined, leading to confusion, Wood says.

To make things even more challenging, ultra-processed food, or junk food, is cheap and available everywhere. Nutritious foods, on the other hand, can be costly and hard to find, especially in low-income, low-access areas, according to Wood. Addressing the issue of diet-related chronic disease is unmanageable for physicians alone and requires the kind of multidisciplinary approach used in culinary medicine, an evidence-based, interprofessional field of medicine that combines culinary arts, nutrition science, and medical education, Wood says.

In this course for medical students, Defining “Healthy”: Culinary Medicine for Chronic Disease Prevention, co-taught with Max Goldstein, lead dietitian chef, who oversees all operations and curriculum at Yale New Haven Health's Teaching Kitchen, Wood teaches students to identify the health-promoting components common among evidence-based diets (such as the Mediterranean Diet or USDA’s MyPlate), understand the Standard American Diet and its contribution to the development of diet-related diseases, and use nutritional guidelines to measure the health benefits of everyday foods. During the hands-on class, students cook a health-promoting meal.

“Food is a problem, but it can also be a solution, especially if we can bridge the gap among physicians, dietitians, chefs, and patients,” Wood said. “Culinary medicine is not only vital to patient care, but it can also provide necessary nutrition education for students, medical trainees, and health care professionals.”

Culinary Medicine as a Defining Part of Health Care

With the new Teaching Kitchen, Wood sees an immediate benefit for patients, including those with diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, who can significantly improve their health through food prescriptions and dietary changes. He also plans to connect people in the community with resources, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and to do cooking demonstrations in food pantries. It’s important for the Teaching Kitchen to play a role in screening for food insecurity to support health in a variety of ways, he says

Beyond Yale and North Haven, Wood hopes to see more teaching kitchens across the country. In addition to helping to address root causes of disease, the new care model can improve social connectedness, mental health, and physical well-being among patients, he says.

Wood believes culinary medicine will soon be a defining part of health care.

“We’re going to continue to develop novel therapeutics and have access to lifesaving drugs, but there is a groundswell of interest in this lifestyle aspect of medicine that has been neglected for so long,” Wood said. His best advice? It’s time to get cooking.

Submitted by Serena Crawford on June 16, 2023