Future doctors learning cooking skills | Michael Hastings: Food Columnist

A class Friday in the Brenner FIT kitchen at the William G. White YMCA showed how training for doctors is beginning to evolve.

Instead of learning about the workings of the human body, the medical students were learning how to cook.

Dr. Joseph Skelton, the director of Brenner FIT at Wake Forest Baptist Health, led the class. Skelton is an associate professor of pediatrics who teaches regular classes in the Wake Forest School of Medicine and sees patients. And as director of Brenner FIT (Families in Training), he is tasked with helping families with overweight children.

It so happens that Skelton also loves to cook, and he has incorporated cooking and healthy eating programs into his work with patients and their families.

Skelton also has extended cooking classes to medical students — the next generation of doctors who will at times encounter patients whose weight is causing health problems or who otherwise are in need of advice on how diet can help improve their health, their quality of life and their longevity.

Skelton said that the Wake medical school does not have formal nutrition courses in its curriculum, but that nutrition is more often being incorporated. “Wake has recognized that medical students need more,” he said.

The classes he teaches, which are voluntary, are paid for with part of a $300,000 Kohl’s Cares grant and are part of a larger initiative with Northwest Area Health Education Center (NWAHEC) to use cooking to teach good nutrition.

Friday’s class was the fourth one Skelton taught this semester. He plans another series of classes in the spring that will incorporate knife skills, cooking techniques and more.

On Friday, Skelton showed about a dozen students how to make two pasta dishes that are quick, easy and budget-friendly. Both incorporated whole-wheat pastas. One was a simple dish of pasta, olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes and Parmesan cheese. The other was a more complete vegetarian meal of pasta with arugula, asparagus, walnuts and cheese.

The class was very much hands-on. The kitchen has several cooktops, so several small groups can cook at once.

Harper Wilson, a second-year med student, first took one of Skelton’s classes last year. “I started out as a helper, but I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “Now I can cook a whole chicken. And I eat a lot of salads.”

Wilson said he definitely sees a need for such training for doctors. “I’ll be able to advise patients on nutrition and just how to make a healthy meal,” he said. “Even for something like recovery from trauma, diet is important.”

Josh Pathman, a fourth-year student who has cooked in restaurants since he was a teenager, helps Skelton with the classes. He said that because he plans to practice emergency medicine, nutrition education probably won’t figure into his career much, but he still thinks medical students should learn it. “It’s the setting on which the rest of your health is based,” he said.

“Medical schools are notorious for not teaching nutrition,” Pathman said, “though not for lack of trying.”

The demanding medical school curriculum tends to be tight, so adding classes isn’t always easy. And in the past, there wasn’t a demand for classes on nutrition — from students or doctors.

That seems to be changing. Jennifer Graves, a doctor in Wake’s Weight Management Center, said that culinary medicine is an emerging discipline, and medical schools around the country are slowly adding programs for it. Tulane University School of Medicine has even developed a curriculum that other schools are adopting.

When her family moved to San Diego for her husband’s sports-medicine fellowship, Graves took a year off from medicine and went to culinary school. Part of the reason was personal, she said. “When my daughter was born, I had gained a lot of weight, and I wanted to change my lifestyle,” she said.

With her new knowledge, Graves not only took off the weight, but also switched her career focus from more administrative duties to clinical work with patients in the Weight Management Center. Now, she not only can empathize with patients on a personal level, but also can provide them with tools to improve their diets, supporting the work of the center’s dietitians.

Graves also will be teaching a seminar this spring to undergrads in Wake Forest University’s department of Health and Exercise Science. The course will focus on disease and its connection to diet and nutrition. The course will mix lectures with practical cooking classes in the Brenner FIT kitchen.

“When I went to (medical) school, there was nothing,” Graves said. “Now I think there’s definitely an interest in culinary medicine.”

Skelton said that part of Brenner FIT involves teaching families to cook meals at home to encourage healthy habits at the family dinner table. He said that just as medical students need practical lessons in treating patients with a broken arm or appendicitis, they need practical lessons to help advise patients who suffer from obesity and other conditions related to diet and nutrition.

“In order to eat healthy, you have to learn how to cook healthy,” Skelton said. “We’re trying to train them with cooking skills on a basic level so they can advise families about healthy meals.”

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