Students across a variety of disciplines at UTHealth, including McGovern Medical School, are getting a taste of what it means to better understand nutrition and how to better help patients as part of an ongoing culinary medicine program held at the UTHealth School of Public Health (SPH).

Wesley McWhorter, MS, RD, LD, CSCS, a trained chef and dietitian and director of Culinary Nutrition with the Nourish Program, said the elective’s three-hour-long classes last for 8 weeks and allow students from across UTHealth to gain a hands-on understanding and experience in nutrition. The course involves not only cooking but also a look into planting and harvesting fruits and vegetables and ways to better integrate nutritious options into the eating habits of potential patients. While the class is required for those enrolled in certain SPH programs, culinary medicine is available as an extra-curricular course for McGovern Medical School students.

McWhorter said it not only offers a chance to raise awareness of the work by dietitians but also a bit of a relief from the typical medical student workload.

“The message is simple; if the food tastes good then people will eat it, so we teach students how to make healthy food taste good, ” McWhorter said.

Classes are conducted by a broad range of dietetic interns and volunteers who guide students, lead discussions, and assist with setting up equipment and tools. Students learn how to use the Holistic Garden at the SPH to improve the health of their patients through nutrition in a natural setting. Discussions typically involve what can be grown and cultivated to combat various chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity, McWhorter said.

From there, dietetic interns guide students through recipes, cooking techniques, and condition-specific diets. McWhorter said one of the challenges lies in reducing mixed messages about diets and nutrition and unifying the different groups of students to prevent conflicting messaging. Discussions can focus on topics like protein, fat, hypertension, and ways to reduce sodium intake.

“For medical students, you’re really seeing how food impacts individual diets first-hand,” McWhorter said. “We have a number of third- and fourth-year medical students and, during discussions, they’ll talk about going to clinics and seeing these problems among patients. The important thing is everyone eats, but we all have a lot of questions on how to eat healthy and physicians should lead by example by having a good diet themselves.”

The course has proven popular – McWhorter said there is an extensive waiting list with nearly 150 students in line for a chance to try their hand at the culinary elective. Anamaria Dragan, a second-year medical student, participated in the class in spring and returned as a volunteer to help with setting up kitchen supplies, equipment, and food. Like most in the classes, she enjoys cooking and appreciates how the discussions are geared not only toward nutrition but the underlying science behind food and digestion.

“I personally wanted to get better at nutrition, too, and set goals to eat better and healthier,” Dragan said. “From a patient perspective, I think nutrition is extremely important. A lot of medical professionals overlook the importance of food, and I think everyone needs a general understanding of healthy eating habits.”

Dragan said she has been helping her mom in the kitchen her entire life and was surprised by some of the dietary restrictions she learned about and potential fixes for patients. For example, learning how to add flavor to dishes when one might usually add salt – an important piece of information for those who need to cut their sodium intake.

Alexandra Ngo, a third-year medical student, first found out about the program during her first year at McGovern Medical School. Like others, she had to wait until a space opened and has found the class to be a unique way to combine her interest in cooking with her medical degree. Even though she focuses on psychiatry, a good diet can play a big role in patient outcomes.

“It opened up a lot of doors in terms of talking to patients,” Ngo said. “No matter what specialty you’re going into, you can still have a conversation about nutrition and help them make better decisions.”

Ngo said it was important for every student to be exposed to this side of patients’ lives and she stressed how even a small lifestyle change can have major, positive implications for long-term health.

“Anybody can make an impact,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be someone going under for bariatric surgery. By no means is nutrition an exact science, but the more people that are exposed to this area of medicine, the better.”

Laura S. Moore, MEd, RD, LD,  is the director of the Nourish Program. The team also includes Jeanne Piga-Plunkett, MS, RD, LD; Shreela V. Sharma, PhD, RD, LD; R. Sue Day, PhD, MS; Deanna M. Hoelscher, PhD, RD, LD; Shannon Weston, MPH, RDN, LD, CDE, and McWhorter.

For more information about the program and how to enroll, visit the Nourish Program’s website here.