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Food Matters

December 12, 2016

Chef Brenda Langton chopping green, leafy kale

Healthcare Providers Develop New Skills in Cooking and Nutrition Course

During her years as a hospitalist, Kate (Venable) Shafto, M.D., noticed her health waning. It was never anything drastic, but the signs were there. So, she adjusted her lifestyle and implemented changes like clean eating and practicing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at the Center for Spirituality & Healing. Soon, she noticed that those choices melded into her care and teaching, too.

“When health professionals embody healthy behaviors into their own lives, they’re more likely to talk about it with their patients,” Shafto says. That sentiment shines in the Center’s newest initiative, Nourishing Minnesota, which centers on cooking, eating, and food from a health context.

“Food literacy is a major issue for the population as a whole, as well as health professionals,” says Center director Mary Jo Kreitzer, PhD, RN, FAAN. “What is known to be healthy versus unhealthy continues to change over time and even health professionals often are lacking in information.”

This fall, Shafto is co-teaching a cooking course for health students and professionals with Jenny Breen, M.P.H., a professional chef at the University’s Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute.

The Center will also continue to offer its public-facing cooking course, Inspired Cooking for Healthy Lives, as well as academic courses in nutrition and workshops focused on mindful eating.

The Center also joined a national movement called the Teaching Kitchen Collaborative. Founded by David Eisenberg from the Harvard School of Public Health, the Teaching Kitchen Collaborative pulls together leaders in culinary science, nutrition, medicine, public health, and wellbeing. Other major partners include the Culinary Institute of America, the Cleveland Clinic, organic farms, and even Google.

“What we do in the kitchen affects health and wellbeing,” said Pamela Cherry, administrative director at the Center. “As leaders in the field of integrative health, it’s vital that we focus research and education on those connections.”

Dr. Chef

Before Shafto and Breen teamed up to create the Food Matters course, they ran into the same, recurring problem: nutrition and cooking were separate.

“I didn’t see a large emphasis on cooking and local food in the health world,” Breen says. She started teaching cooking courses for college students that centered on healthy eating.

Eventually, that led her to Shafto, who wanted to offer cooking courses for health providers.

“Patients want to know what to eat. Too often, doctors aren’t prepared to have those conversations. They’re trained to recognize problems like vitamin deficiencies or high blood glucose in terms of chemistry and biology, but they may not know how to translate that into what and how to cook to address those health needs,” Shafto says.

Last year, the a pilot course with nearly 20 students was offered; more than 60 people applied.

“All health students should be exposed to this kind of curriculum,” Cherry says.

In the course this fall, students are learning to cook and eat their own meals as part of instruction thanks to a collaboration with The Good Acre, a local non-profit which acts as a distribution hub for local farmers, and owns a large teaching kitchen where the Center’s class is being held.

The hope is that training health students how to cook will better prepare them to offer help and care for their patients.

“There’s an applied skill-based component to healthy eating that even medical students don’t have compared to the rest of the population,” Breen says.

“Cooking has become optional in our society,” Shafto says. “We’ve become so far removed from food, and that reality has numerous consequences.”

Venable gave the example of how certain foods can affect the gut microbiome, which has been linked to playing a role in many aspects of health, particularly autoimmune diseases.

The course can help health workers improve their own lives and maintain their own health, too. Many health professionals work long days and face high pressure situations on a daily basis. Self-care is just as important in creating a healthy society.

“We’re not able to be happy or function to our full capacity unless we take time to enjoy a little cooking and eating our own food. Eating a healthy diet is the best insurance policy out there,” says Brenda Langton, Center Senior Fellow and co-instructor of the Center’s Inspired Cooking for Healthy Lives community course.

Langton, a professional chef and owner of local restaurant Spoonriver, has been teaching the course with Carolyn Denton, R.D. for about six years.

Denton has also been teaching functional nutrition at the Center for the last decade. Inspired Cooking for Healthy Lives brings an added component to the initiative. It’s not just health professionals who lack cooking and nutrition education, but the public too.

“Food contains nutrients. Nutrients contain information, and that information directs the body in how it behaves. It’s not just what you eat, but when and how and why you eat,” Denton says. “At the Center, it’s more than just memorizing facts. We provide you with the skills and tools to practice that in your everyday life.”

“There is growing evidence that what we eat has a very significant impact on our health, both short term and long term. The American diet is very unhealthy and contributes to obesity and many chronic diseases. Through culinary and nutrition education, our community can continue to grow and improve so all Minnesotans can flourish,” says Kreitzer. +++

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Mandala cover from fall 2017. The cover features a collage of images of Earl Bakken, and the University of Minnesota's "M"

Mandala is a biannual magazine produced by Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing. It captures the core aspects of the Center: reflection, transformation, spirituality, creation, and the ongoing journey that continues to shape what we are to become.

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The Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing blog covers a range of integrative health and wellbeing topics. For more information about our blog, contact us at csh@umn.edu