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Eating better: Rural medical students learn about culinary medicine

plate of salad and cornbread

Many patients know they need to eat better. They don’t know how.

That’s why “I don’t ask them what they eat. I ask them who cooks,” Joseph F. Wetterhahn, MD, told 14 first-year students in Upstate Medical University’s Rural Medical Education program. They gathered in a demonstration kitchen at Syracuse University’s Falk College to learn about “culinary medicine.”

Wetterhahn, a family medicine doctor and Upstate graduate, said focusing on cooking gives patients more control over the food they take in, how it is prepared and how much of their budget it will take.

He pointed out that the food he buys comes from the grocery store near his home in Adams, about 15 miles south of Watertown. It’s a store with far fewer offerings than Wegmans or Whole Foods. Further, he says when teaching patients about culinary medicine, he skips “chefy” things like making pasta from scratch.

Instead, Wetterhahn puts the focus on food rules popularized by author Michael Pollan. “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” “Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients.” “Don’t eat anything with health claims on the label.”

Wetterhahn was joined by Upstate University Hospital pediatrician Matthew Picone, MD, a veteran chef. Picone demonstrated to students how to prepare chicken breast in a skillet and use what remained in the pan to create a sauce.

Students crowded around the demonstration, reacting as Picone sprinkled or drizzled in ingredients — onions, mustard, garlic and mushrooms — changing the fragrance of the kitchen with each addition.

Melia Wakeman, a student from Sidney in Delaware County, said the class helped her understand how important culinary medicine is. Her own family has shifted how it eats, she recounted, turning toward fruits and vegetables and away from processed foods. “You want to eat fresh food, as fresh as you can,” she said.

A graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in chemical engineering, Wakeman entered the rural medical program when she found work as a chemical engineer unfulfilling and recognized the shortage of physicians in rural areas –— such as her hometown. “These are my people,” she said.

Twice a month in Adams, Wetterhahn and his wife, a physician assistant, host cooking classes called “A Better You” for patients interested in learning how to prepare healthy meals. Wetterhahn is up front with the class, telling them he is not a chef, and the meals do not have to turn out perfectly to be healthier than premade foods.

“One of the things I try to stress with people is, if I can do it, you can do it.”

Upstate Health magazine winter 2020 issue coverThis article is from the winter 2020 issue of Upstate Health magazine.