When Tulane’s School of Medicine announced a groundbreaking collaboration with Johnson & Wales University last summer, the good food community was abuzz at the possibilities inherent in linking the medical and culinary communities. Dr. Timothy Harlan, the executive director of the new Tulane University Center for Culinary Medicine, has roots in the culinary world — at 18 he managed his first restaurant, and at 22 he opened a French bistro — and his knowledge of food and medical expertise has made him a unique authority on how one can inform the other. He’s been an on-air expert for the Food Network show “Cooking Thin,” earned an Emmy Award for “The Dr. Gourmet Show,” and has been featured on CNN, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He’s also the author of three books, the latest of which, Just Tell Me What to Eat!, was released in 2011. For more information about Dr. Harlan, check out his site, DrGourmet.com.
Was there a specific point when you began to correlate good food with good health?
By the time I had decided to go to medical school in 1985 I had already begun making a significant change in how I was cooking. While in medical school two years later I began to see that there was a disconnect between what physicians and health care professionals said, what they did and how they related information to patients. That is when I started researching and writing about food for patients.
You’ve said “Patients, it seemed, were usually told not what they could eat but, rather, what they could not eat.” What are some ways that doctors can advocate for healthy diets in a positive way?
At Tulane we are teaching medical students about clinical nutrition through teaching them about cooking and culinary skills. Using food we connect the basic sciences taught in the first two years with the discussions they can have with their patients. The focus of our curriculum is excellent research on Mediterranean diet (and DASH diet principles that grow out of that research). In practical terms this means more whole grains, legumes, fruits & nuts, veggies, fish, great quality oils, less meat and leaner meat, moderate alcohol consumption and fermented dairy.
The theme is helping their patients focus on fresh food and avoid refined products that are high in sodium, poor quality fats and highly processed. We are working with our students in cooking classes but also their community service projects where they work with New Orleans residents teach the community in a culturally sensitive and non-judgmental way.
How does empowering doctors to cook make them better advocates?
There is very good evidence that when physicians “walk the walk” themselves and then “talk the talk” with their patients their advice is followed at a much higher rate. This has even been shown to be effective at the medical student level. By teaching students to cook we help them understand how to walk that walk better. Our data is preliminary but we have subjective feedback that this is working both with students changing their pantries and changing their dialogue with patients.
How do you believe the culinary and health communities’ interests dovetail?
Most people think of culinary community as only being restaurants or those interested in fresh, local food. In truth, most graduates from culinary schools will go to work for large corporations such as Sodexo or Kraft Foods. They work at all levels from sous chef at a small bistro to R&D positions for multinational food companies. As such, culinarians in our world have as much or more impact on our health than any single profession. That impact is, unfortunately, more often negative today with highly processed, calorie dense but nutrient poor foods. The resultant weight gain, inflammatory and oxidative stress and subsequent diabetes, heart disease and associated conditions impacts us personally but also has a tremendous financial impact. The way forward for us is to change the they way we all think about food—chefs and physicians.