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UNM course gives Rx for healthy eating

A program piloted at the University of New Mexico last fall aims to give medical students more insight into how nutrition affects overall health.

The introduction to culinary medicine course taught by Deborah Cohen, an associate professor in UNM’s nutrition program, is an elective available to fourth-year medical students and to graduate students in the university’s nutrition program.

Cohen said many people depend on getting nutritional advice from their doctors but often physicians lack the time to provide much counseling in this area. She was inspired to create the pilot program after hearing about a similar course at the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans.

The course combines a scientific approach to nutrition as it affects wellness. Students learn about renal physiology and sodium, fats and weight management.

They also get hands-on experience in cooking techniques in a commercial-grade kitchen on the UNM campus. Unless people know how to cook, Cohen said, it’s hard for them to give advice on eating habits. In a recent class students were learning culinary knife skills, practicing slicing and chopping vegetables under the expert direction of personal chef Celestina Brunetti, who is also a registered dietician.

Later, students ate the fruits of their labors, while discussing how to avoid eating too quickly, which causes the body to miss the signals that hunger has been satisfied.

“Considering the obesity epidemic, this (course) will be really important. We’ll be able to tell patients what to cook and eat – what will be quick for families, what a balanced diet is and what people with heart disease and diabetes shouldn’t have,” said fourth-year medical student Mary Irving. She is planning to go into family medicine.

Another medical student taking the course, Stephen Sanchez, is planning to specialize in psychology. He is interested in the connection between nutrition and mental health.