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Food as Medicine

On a trip to Wynn Las Vegas, UNLV medical students learn that choosing healthier options doesn’t mean sacrificing flavor.

Campus News  |  Dec 5, 2018  |  By UNLV School of Medicine

While many young people exist on hamburgers and pizza during their college years, members of the UNLV School of Medicine charter class are learning why the better option for optimum health is a “superfood” salad of organic quinoa, farro, baby kale, radishes, and tomatoes — with a drizzle of herb vinaigrette dressing.

As part of the Food as Medicine course, the students had the rare opportunity to go behind the scenes of Wynn Las Vegas to see how this culinary operation works. Students quizzed some renowned chefs at the award-winning restaurants, observing their exacting standards and learning about vegan menus, allergen awareness, and third-party food analysis.

An estimated 12 to 15 million Americans have some type of food allergy, so top restaurants are going to great lengths to protect their guests. At Wynn, the students learned about thoughtfully designed special menus and allergy “kits,” which are clearly marked containers of sterilized utensils that are brought out and used to cook an individual meal for a guest whenever one makes it known they have a food allergy.

Keeping Food Tasty

The chefs at Wynn talked about ways to make special menu items healthier, while maintaining — and even enhancing — the taste.

“For the dough in our ravioli, we can use flour and pureed tofu instead of eggs,” Chef Luke Palladino of Sinatra restaurant told the students. “Then we do a seasonal vegetable emulsion — right now we’re using tomatoes (and) we’re using squash puree. We can use asparagus depending on the season. Then, to bread the ravioli, we use pureed tofu to mimic the breading on it. We use no eggs, and put a vegan mozzarella cheese on top, which is made with tapioca starch and coconut oil. When it melts, it’s pretty amazing how the flavor comes out. “

 

 

Maintaining rich flavors while cutting calories can be done many different ways, Palladino said. For example, it’s possible to use less cream and butter, while adding smoked mushrooms to mimic the taste of bacon.

Second-year medical student Emily Guyaux came away impressed. “Visiting the Wynn changed how I think about restaurants' responsibilities to their guests because I realized that sacrificing good food for health, allergy problems, or dietary sensitivities just isn't necessary.

“It also showed me how a restaurant can allow guests to feel safe and confident if they are truly meticulous about respecting food allergies and protecting guests with sensitivities,” she said.

Emphasizing Health

Medical student Damien Medrano said, “I really enjoyed learning about how the Wynn is incorporating healthier food principles. It is important for the hospitality industry to embrace the growing emphasis on healthy dining habits that many people desire. Great food with fewer calories (and) less butter and sodium are practical changes that we, as future doctors, can certainly appreciate.”

Medrano is a member of the UNLV School of Medicine Cooking Club. “It’s a fun way to get us practicing Hippocrates’ philosophy of ‘food as thy medicine,’” he said. Students take turns hosting dinner and sharing tasty recipes. “We have just started and so far we have 15 members and two great recipes, turkey chili and chicken tikka masala. Our school was fully supportive and even bought us special UNLV School of Medicine aprons.”

Medrano actually brought his apron to the Wynn.  Although he didn’t get a chance to cook, he and the other second-year students were invited to sample some of Wynn’s “vanity menu” items, including the “superfood” salad.

Feeding the Troops

They also toured Wynn’s staff café, where approximately 12,500 Wynn and Encore employees are fed.

It is here that employees are allowed one free meal a day — and it’s not your typical cafeteria fare. The food, and even the dining room decor, rival many fine restaurants.  Every entree is color-coded to help employees make healthy choices, and Wynn chefs go out of their way to know exactly how many calories are in each dish. While most restaurants estimate caloric content, Wynn conducts third-party food analysis by periodically scooping up everything on a plate and sending it to a lab for examination and caloric measurement.

The students seemed fascinated by this. Student Emily Guyaux asked Wynn executive chef James Benson, “Do you have any data to show your efforts to provide healthier food is paying off with better employee health?” 

Benson didn’t offer up any hard data, but pointed out the company’s health insurance provides incentives for weight loss and lower body mass index (BMI) — and that every calorie saved is a step in the right direction.