As dietitians, we know the significant influence food has on disease prevention, management, and treatment. Although modern medical procedures and pharmaceuticals have made remarkable differences in disease states, many health care professionals often underappreciate the effects that whole, natural foods can have on patient outcomes.
Culinary medicine is an emerging specialty within health care wherein a practitioner uses food, nutrition, and cooking as strategies—often alongside conventional approaches—to help heal patients’ diseases or ailments. It can be used as both a preventive tool and a management modality, depending on the stage and severity of a patient’s health condition. Culinary medicine can be practiced in one-on-one sessions as well as in group or community settings.
So, what does culinary medicine look like in practice? Here’s an example: Your patient presents with a medical history of obesity and hypertension and a family history of heart disease and kidney disease. The patient is motivated to lose weight and prevent heart disease, but the information he received from his doctor was to move more and eat less. He tried WW (formerly called Weight Watchers) but couldn’t remain on the program for more than a few months.
After a full nutrition assessment, you determine that a culinary medicine–based approach will help your patient meet his goals. Over the ensuing months, you educate your patient about the Mediterranean-DASH diet and how increasing fruit, vegetable, whole grain, and legume intake and decreasing ultraprocessed food consumption can help him live a more healthful lifestyle. You teach him how to read a Nutrition Facts label (with a special focus on sodium for hypertension), write a grocery list, create a weekly meal plan, navigate a grocery store, choose health-promoting options when dining out, prepare nourishing meals with simple and whole foods, and reduce salt intake by using spices, herbs, vinegars, and oils for flavor. This is all accomplished while keeping in mind the patient’s time and budget limitations and recommending culturally appropriate recipes. You encourage him to work closely with his physician to manage medications, as the improved diet quality may decrease his reliance on them.
RDs interested in this approach can pursue a Certified Culinary Medicine Specialist (CCMS) certification, which, according to the Culinary Medicine Specialist Board, “identifies clinicians who have a unique foundation for incorporating healthy eating into patients’ diets: comprehensive knowledge of nutrition and the culinary techniques to prepare food that is consistent with real-world budgets, time constraints, and nutritional ideals.”
In addition to RDs, physicians, physician assistants, pharmacists, and nurse practitioners are eligible for the CCMS certification. The program provides training on dozens of health conditions and is rich with both provider and patient resources and recipes that make achieving optimal health possible.
The Board lists the goals of the CCMS program as follows:
- “integrate nutritional counseling to supplement pharmacological treatment;
- educate patients about weight loss and weight management;
- develop practical examination-room dialogues that inspire behavioral change; and
- implement new strategies in even the busiest primary care offices.”
During my dietetic internship, I had the opportunity to lead dozens of culinary medicine classes, in which I helped teach nursing and medical students how to prepare nourishing meals that would do them and their future patients good. Following graduation, I received my CCMS certification. I use my culinary medicine education every day, whether with my family, during individual nutrition counseling sessions, or, most often, as a culinary nutrition instructor at To Taste.
I’m hopeful that as interest and awareness in this field grows, I will have the opportunity to work at the intersection of nutrition and medicine, and I’m excited for other passionate dietitians to join the movement.
For more information about the CCMS program, the universities that have incorporated this into their curricula, plus recipes, visit culinarymedicine.org.
— Alexis Endicott, RD, LD, CCMS, is a registered and licensed dietitian and Certified Culinary Medicine Specialist from Boise, Idaho. She works for a culinary nutrition education company, To Taste. She believes eating healthfully should be enjoyable, sustainable, and fulfilling, and that choosing plant-forward and minimally processed foods is the best way to maintain and promote health. Outside of cooking and teaching, Lexi enjoys running, coaching cross country, cycling, reading, listening to podcasts, and playing the cello.