Medical Students Learn About Food and Health in a New Way

Published March 23, 2020

Medical students at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences are donning chef’s coats and toques instead of white coats for a new interprofessional course.

“Culinary medicine and nutrition are subjects that most medical schools don’t dedicate enough time to. Together with my medical, culinary and dietetics colleagues, we are committed to changing that.”
Helen H. Cappuccino, MD
Clinical assistant professor of surgery

Along with UB student dietitians, they are taking “Introduction to Culinary Medicine,” a Jacobs School pilot course that’s helping them understand food and health in a new way.

They apply their lessons immediately, preparing meals every Wednesday afternoon in the kitchens of the culinary arts department at SUNY Erie Community College.

They are also learning some of the things that prevent patients from eating more healthily.

Culinary Medicine an Emerging Field

The idea for the course came together as culinary medicine was emerging both nationally and locally.

But Helen H. Cappuccino, MD, clinical assistant professor of surgery in the Jacobs School and assistant professor of oncology in the breast surgery division at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, traces her interest in the food/health connection back to her childhood.

“Being raised in an Italian family, so much of our family life was transacted around the table,” she says.

“Eating good foods that were flavorful and nourishing was always important, but it wasn’t just about getting calories in. It was about the family bonding at the table, about moderation, about trying new things. Mealtime is a very special time — for laughing, for loving and savoring at once.”

As a breast cancer surgeon, Cappuccino keeps current with studies of how different foods might impact cancer. Her patients often bring it up.

“A cancer diagnosis often shakes people to their foundation,” she says. “It makes them introspective and questioning of everything they did and thought they knew. Diet is no exception. I spend a lot of time talking to them about factors they can control, including diet, smoking cessation, physical activity, maintaining optimal body weight and moderating alcohol intake.”

Collaboration With Fellow Food Enthusiasts

In 2014, Cappuccino had the opportunity to attend a course at the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University.

When she found out that chef Kristin Goss, associate professor and chair of culinary arts at SUNY Erie, and chef Dorothy Johnston, associate professor and former chair of culinary arts at SUNY Erie, had attended the same course, they began to discuss how to bring culinary medicine to Buffalo.

All three knew each other as members of the Buffalo chapter of the Chaines des Rotisseurs, the local chapter of an international food and wine society.

“Through the same food and wine group, we connected and began our mission to bring a culinary medicine course to the Jacobs School,” Cappuccino says.

Cancer Diagnosis Was Genesis of Initiative

SUNY Erie culinary arts faculty had begun developing a curriculum not just for its own students but also to share with local medical and dietetics students; the goal is to eventually make this kind of curriculum available to local health care providers.

“A cancer diagnosis and realization of what I could change personally and professionally started this initiative five years ago,” Goss says.

“I shared an office with Dorothy, our department chair at the time, and honestly stated, ‘I need to make our culinary nutrition class better, and this is where I want to start.’”

With the assistance of Johnston and Cappuccino, who has supported the SUNY Erie culinary arts department through her affiliation with the Chaines des Rotisseurs, Goss says they began to develop the course.

Lisa Jane Jacobsen, MD, associate dean for medical curriculum and clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Jacobs School, and Nicole L. Klem, program director, dietetic internship, Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, spent countless hours designing a curriculum and coordinating between the institutions in order to make the UB course a reality.

“This recent collaboration has been a tremendous gift,” Goss notes.

Students Learning Why Food is Medicine

The Jacobs School pilot course is being offered as an intensive, month-long elective.

“Students do modules online about the science of food, why food is medicine, and then they go to SUNY Erie to learn about healthy recipes and the principles of food preparation,” Jacobsen says.

The curriculum involves a journal club, a standard aspect of many medical school courses, where students meet to discuss the latest scientific papers in a particular field. They also practice what they’ve learned on standardized patient volunteers, individuals trained to simulate real patients with specific conditions.

“They learn to elicit nutrition histories and how to counsel patients on nutrition,” Jacobsen says.

She adds that, as with much of the medical school curriculum, the course includes an emphasis on understanding the factors that prevent patients from living as healthfully as they might want to.

“In the module on food insecurity, the students are given a very limited budget. They will be expected to take the bus to the supermarket, buy food for a family and come back to the kitchen to prepare it,” Jacobsen says. “They need to learn about barriers to healthy eating, which could be financial, or transportation or a lack of knowledge. All these cultural influences could have an impact.”

Devoting Resources to Oft-Neglected Subjects

Jacobsen notes that physicians are often called upon to discuss nutrition with their patients, whether the patient is diabetic or pregnant or has hypertension or a common gastrointestinal complaint.

“Culinary medicine and nutrition are subjects that most medical schools don’t dedicate enough time to,” Cappuccino says. “Together with my medical, culinary and dietetics colleagues, we are committed to changing that.”

Other faculty members involved with the course are:

  • Crystal Gramse, project director and Healthy Pantry Initiative Champion, SUNY Erie
  • Chef instructor Kyle Haak, assistant professor of culinary arts at SUNY Erie