What the health statistics show — no matter if they come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, or the Milken Institute for Public Health — is beyond disturbing.
The American diet is killing us.
So goes the health care world that new doctors from the UNLV School of Medicine and other medical schools will enter. The numbers show a poor diet is the leading cause of mortality in the United States, causing more than 500,000 deaths yearly. Not consuming the proper amount of 10 dietary factors — fruits, vegetables, nuts/seed, whole grains, unprocessed red meats, processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, polyunsaturated fats, seafood omega-fats, and sodium — is estimated to cause around 1,000 deaths daily from diabetes, stroke, and heart disease alone.
Preliminary analysis also shows that the manifestations of a poor diet can heighten the risk of death from COVID-19.
In an opinion piece published last year in the New York Times — “Our Food is Killing Too Many of Us” — Dr. Darius Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and Dan Glickman, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture, pointed out that 75 percent of Americans are overweight or obese and that many of those suffer direct health consequences. Obesity’s total economic costs, including lost productivity, is estimated at $1.72 trillion a year, nearly 10 percent of gross domestic product. Because many young Americans are obese, recruiters face difficult challenges staffing our all-volunteer military.
“What is making us so sick, and how can we reverse this so we need less health care?” the authors asked. “The answer is staring us in the face, on average, three times a day: Our food.”
Health Meets Food
It is against this unappetizing backdrop — led by non-nutritious processed foods — that the UNLV School of Medicine and 55 other academic medical centers across the country are including a “Health Meets Food” curriculum in their training of physicians and other medical providers. Considered the most comprehensive culinary medicine curriculum for physicians and allied health professionals, the program leads the way in how medical professionals are trained so they can have more meaningful conversations with their patients about food and health.
Dr. Anne Weisman, the UNLV School of Medicine’s director of wellness and integrative medicine, is overseeing a nine-week program that started this month for 60 first-year students. In September, second-year students begin. On Oct. 2, Dr. Michael Greger, author of the New York Times best-seller How Not to Die, will speak virtually to medical students on the importance of nutrition. He will do a live Q&A with students following his presentation.
“Everything we put into our mouths when we eat, can either improve or detract from our health,” she noted. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said students will attend “Health Meets Food” classes virtually in their own home kitchens through Zoom. Part of the first session has students making tacos with healthy ingredients, including whole grain tortillas, vegetables, and black beans — a departure from the traditional tacos in the U.S. that are high in calories, fat, and sodium — where store-bought seasoning and flour tortillas contribute to health concerns.
“Over time we can significantly change the health of our community,” Weisman said.
Dr. Timothy Harlan, the nation’s leading catalyst for teaching culinary medicine to students in the health professions, contributed earlier this month to a class taught by UNLV faculty via Zoom. He recently joined the faculty of George Washington University in the nation’s capital and is now head of the GW Center for Culinary Medicine. Harlan, who’s been spreading his “food is medicine” gospel throughout the world, is a former colleague of UNLV School of Medicine Dean Marc Kahn from when both men worked at the Tulane School of Medicine in New Orleans.
Chef turned physician
Harlan, a chef and restaurateur before becoming a physician, developed the “Health Meets Food” curriculum over much of the last decade while executive director of the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane. In addition to providing hands-on training for medical students, the center offers community cooking classes, free and open to the public. “Dr. Harlan’s program is evidence-based,” Kahn said.
The curriculum, used by medical students, residents, and clinicians, includes more than 30 content-specific educational modules. They stretch from: guidelines for changes in diet during pregnancy to identifying means of prevention for childhood obesity — from the proper nutrition after a cancer diagnosis to nutritional needs for geriatric patients. Each module presents basic and clinical science related to evidence-based nutritional and dietary goals for specific topics such as polycystic ovary syndrome or the impact health care practitioners can have on controlling and managing symptoms of congestive heart failure through diet intervention. There are case presentations, recipes, cooking instructions, quizzes, and discussion questions.
Harlan said for the vast majority of Americans, diet is at the core of their illness. He said illnesses from heart disease, diabetes, and stroke to depression and Alzheimer’s disease are accelerated by an American diet of highly processed foods. During a recent interview, Harlan said that food-related issues were not that much of a problem until the last 30 to 40 years, when many Americans eschewed cooking with healthy ingredients in favor of buying highly processed foods full of addictive sugar and salt, either from the grocery stores or fast food outlets. “There’s been an explosion of calorie-dense processed food,” Harlan said.
According to Harlan, with many medical schools now emphasizing the importance of nutrition, the dialogue between physician and patient is being changed from “Hey, you need to lose some weight,” to action-oriented suggestions that meet best medical practices.
Weisman said that with medical students learning to shop for and prepare nutritious meals, future doctor-patient visits can be much more targeted and helpful when discussions arise about healthy diets. She said that once the pandemic is under control, medical students will go to community centers to teach the benefits of good nutrition. She also envisions a medical school partnership with the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality — where the best in kitchens can be used to help teach community members the power of healthy recipes, as has been done at Tulane and George Washington universities.
“We’re teaching our medical students about the power of good nutrition and then they in turn will teach the community,” Weisman said. “The reward of good nutrition is better health. Our medical school, our students, will be making real-world positive suggestions that can make a difference.”