DC doctors, patients learning to cook with ‘Mediterranean’ diet to help chronic conditions

George Washington University Medical School in D.C. has become the first in the region to roll out a program aimed at educating doctors and community members to consider food as medicine.

Changing a patient’s diet can improve symptoms when it comes to dozens of chronic conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, macular degeneration, cancer and heart disease, according to Dr. Timothy S. Harlan.

He’s at the helm of the new Culinary Medicine Program at G.W. Medical School. It’s one of 60 universities across the country adopting Harlan’s program, which began at Tulane University.

“The Mediterranean diet, the preponderance of literature shows, it helps prevent and treat all of those conditions,” Harlan told WTOP.

However, it’s not exactly the diet that may come to mind. Harlan’s program teaches doctors, medical students and patients how to eat within nine points of the Mediterranean diet.

“That just becomes the palette for how you manage your food,” Harlan said. “And that’s pretty simple.”

The nine points focus on eating in these key areas:

  • Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Whole grains
  • Fruits and nuts
  • Fish and seafood
  • Better quality oils and fats
  • Mostly fermented dairy
  • Lean, no processed meats
  • Alcohol in moderation

Part of the program is to host community cooking classes to teach patients how to cook healthy meals within these nine points.

“If I can get you or a physician to improve your Mediterranean diet score and get into a score of seven, eight or nine, I can reduce their risk of dying from all causes by 25%,” Harlan said “For every single point you improve your Mediterranean diet score, it reduces your risk of dying from all causes by 5%.”

Harlan clarified he was referring to causes such as cardiac disease, macular degeneration, hypertension, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes, to name a few.

The recipes taught in the community classes, which have yet to be scheduled, will aim to create healthier versions of familiar American foods.

“Our recipes are red beans and rice, and tacos and spaghetti and macaroni and cheese. It’s also Indian food and Asian food because we all eat that,” Harlan said.

Dr. Erin Good, who took Culinary Medicine at G.W., shared a memorable experience she recently had with a patient with uncontrolled diabetes to emphasize the need for physicians to assess their patient’s diet.

“I said, ‘Have you ever thought about your eating choices? Do you think that that’s part of the issue here?’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I’ve only ever cooked one way. My mom taught me how to fry things. That’s all I know how to do,'” she said recounting her conversation with the veteran.

Good, now a resident in Rochester, New York, said she saw firsthand that many people don’t have the background, or the resources, to eat healthfully.

In many cases of chronic illness, Good said, a doctor should look to a patient’s lifestyle.

“These are the things we need to be asking people about, and certainly just prescribing a pill wasn’t working,” she said when referencing the 67-year-old veteran’s case.

The program taught her to consider the culture of each patient and their access to healthy food.

“Food is the way that we interact with other people, it’s the way that we identify ourselves in a lot of ways, so if we can understand how someone uses their own food in their own culture to identify themselves, that’s a much better way to treat their condition than trying to give them a completely new identity,” Good said.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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