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Nutrition researches impact of culinary courses on health professional students

Researchers believe the courses will enhance students’ ability to work with future low-income patients in particular.

Janel Shoun-Smith | 615.966.7078  | 

Health science students cooking a meal in the course

When the public thinks of medical professionals, cooking is not the first image that comes to mind.

However, according to research, culinary training for medical students actually improves their own diet quality as well as better equips them to counsel future patients on a healthy diet, which is particularly important for low-income patients with limited access to fresh meats, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

This semester, the Department of Nutrition decided to build on this research by holding their own culinary academy for student physician assistants, nurses and pharmacists to add to the body of knowledge in this area.

Nutrition’s 16 dietetic interns have coordinated and held four culinary classes for 14 students in the three health science programs. Researchers coordinating the study are Tracy Noerper, assistant professor and assistant internship director, Anne Lowery, associate professor and internship director, and Geoffrey Wright, assistant professor of physician assistant studies.

“There is a paucity of evidence in the role that culinary training plays for health professional students in their nutrition education of low-income patients,” said Noerper. “We hypothesized that an active learning, culinary experience will improve the students' nutrition knowledge, boost culinary skills and increase their confidence in counseling future low-income patients about a healthy diet.”

health science students cooking during the course

The four culinary classes held this winter were focused on general nutrition, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

“Many individuals who are food insecure are at higher risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases,” said Noerper. “At some point all health care professionals will be in contact with a patient who has reduced access to adequate funds for food, so knowing how best to support their nutrition is imperative.”
“The PA curriculum is jam-packed with learning the pathophysiology of diseases, pharmacology and clinical medicine. Nutrition and diet plays a role throughout the curriculum, but there are some practical elements that may be left out of the traditional classroom teaching,” said Wright.
“Our students all graduate with a clear understanding of the relationship between good dietary habits and positive health outcomes, but they may not have considered some of the practical education they might be able to provide to their future patients, especially those patients who are on a tight budget.
“This project provided health care students with tangible, take-home nutrition tips that can help their patients achieve obtainable goals and habits that lead to greater autonomy and improved health outcomes,” he said.
“It's important to me that students and their future patients know that eating healthy does not need to ‘break the bank,’ a myth that I hear quite often,” said Noerper. “Each week we are literally showing, through hands-on learning, how to prepare healthy foods that are delicious, nutritious and affordable.”

Health science students enjoying what they cooked

During the courses, students were positively engaged and challenged to understand the needs of low-income patients, said the researchers. “I saw them taking pictures of the dishes they made and sending them to friends and family. I definitely heard students saying, ‘I'm going to make this again,’” said Noerper.
In addition, the culinary academy familiarized the participants with the benefits of using a registered dietitian in patient care, allowed the dietetic interns to meet national dietetic competencies including planning, budgeting, staffing and coordination of services and further strengthened the college’s emphases on interprofessional education and opportunities.
The dietetic interns conceptualized the weekly recipes, tested and calculated the cost of the recipes in order to keep them affordable, formulated educational lesson plans, conducted the lessons and demonstrated culinary skills during each of the four culinary classes, Noerper said. 
“I think this project is an excellent way for the dietetics interns to get valuable hands-on experience and provides a valuable opportunity for students to recognize the roles and strengths that each profession provides in the delivery of health care,” said Wright.

“I can't emphasize enough the value of interprofessional partnerships. So many valuable resources and skills are underutilized largely due to inadequate knowledge of the scope of practice amongst health care professionals,” he said. “A better understanding of interprofessional relationships through research allows us to optimize each others' professions with the ultimate goal of improving patient health outcomes.”
The coordinators hope to continue holding the culinary academy for health science students and to submit the research findings of this semester’s culinary academy for publication.