Could Culinary Medicine Bridge the Gap in Nutrition Education for Physicians and Patients?

By Common Threads | May 15, 2020

Common Threads explored the topics of culinary medicine, the Chicago-based Cooking Up Health program, and COVID-19 with expert Melinda Ring MD, FACP, ABOIM. Dr. Ring is the Director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine (General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics) and Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University.

Dr. Ring developed the Cooking Up Health culinary medicine program with Common Threads, and has transitioned the spring 2020 semester class to virtual instruction.

Cooking Up Health was recently featured in a blog from Dr. Ring on Thrive Global and in the “Cooking For Life” film produced by The TakeCare Campaign.

CHICAGO | May 14, 2020

Did you know?

An average of 19,000 students graduate medical school every year (Association of American Medical Colleges). According to the American Medical Association, “While physicians encourage patients to make healthy food choices, only 27 percent of U.S. medical schools actually offer students the recommended 25 hours of nutritional training”

An Interview with Dr. Ring

Q: Some readers may not be familiar with culinary medicine. Could you explain culinary medicine?

A: Culinary medicine is a new field in medicine that blends the art of cooking with the science of medicine. Teaching people not just the why of healthy eating, but also the how through hands-on experiences, gives them the tools to prevent and manage chronic health conditions through the choices they made every day.

Q: Please describe the Cooking Up Health program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

A: Cooking Up Health is designed to teach health science students about real-world nutrition and healthy cooking through a series of six lessons combining graduate-level nutrition and hands-on cooking, and four service-learning sessions in which they teach the Common Threads Small Bites curriculum to grade school children in at-risk communities. In this model, health professional students gain practical experience in health coaching skills and explore cultural and socioeconomic factors in behavior change, while grade school students benefit from receiving nutrition instruction from graduate student role models.

The Cooking Up Health lessons aim to give medical students the knowledge and skills to:

  • Integrate cooking and eating a healthy diet into their busy schedules
  • Understand and apply the current science about the benefits of plant-based diets
  • Coach patients through behavior change to achieve healthy diets
  • Work effectively in a community setting to teach nutrition and cooking to children

Q. Why did you decide to co-create and lead Cooking Up Health with Common Threads?
A: Nutrition is a central component of a healthy lifestyle, with poor diets being a leading risk factor for death and disability in the U.S. An estimated 75 percent of U.S. healthcare spending goes to chronic, lifestyle-related disease, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity management. Health professionals are on the front-line of and have a critical role in combating these societal problems, but with the current training they are under-equipped to meet the challenge. We developed Cooking Up Health as a way of bridging that gap so future health professionals feel prepared to manage situations in which definitive nutrition therapy has the most potential to affect patient outcomes and community health promotion.

Q. If culinary medicine were mandated for all medical students, what kind of results would we hope to see for the larger medical community, including patients?
A: Our hope is that culinary medicine training programs like CUH will become a standard part of medical school training. The CUH initiative links population health with evidence-based nutrition education. The practical knowledge and skills attained through the training enable students to see the relevance and application of nutrition to health. Ultimately, by improving medical students’ readiness to employ nutritional strategies as a routine part of patient care, we anticipate improvements in patient health outcomes, reduced health systems costs, social equity of health outcomes, and overall improved population health.

Q. Since COVID-19, a historic public health pandemic, do you think there should be more emphasis on culinary medicine? Why or why not?
A: One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is the increased interest in home cooking. Home cooked meals have been shown to correlate with healthier diets that are lower in sugar, salt and fat, and higher in vegetable and fruit intake; as well as improved risk markers for obesity, heart disease and diabetes. One recent survey showed that during these months of staying home over half of those polled reported cooking more, and of those three-quarters felt more confident in the kitchen and got more pleasure from cooking. Data from online searches reveal that people are spending time exploring cooking skills and recipes, and purchases for kitchen equipment and cookbooks have surged. This is all good news for the future health of our country, and for the kids at home who are learning new lifelong skills.

Common Threads was founded in Chicago in 2003 by CEO Linda Novick O’Keefe, celebrity chef Art Smith and his husband, artist Jesus Salgueiro, as a way to bring under-resourced children together, help them celebrate different cultures and teach them about healthy nutrition. From its humble beginnings in a church basement, Common Threads now services children and families in 12 markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Miami, Pittsburgh, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, El Paso and Erie. For more information, visit or search #CookingForLife on social media.