ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
What we eat is the single most important factor when it comes to premature death and disease. That's according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Yet few doctors say they feel properly trained to give dietary advice. Monica Eng of member station WBEZ introduces us to a group that's trying to fill that knowledge gap.
MONICA ENG, BYLINE: In a bustling kitchen at one of Chicago's top cooking schools, a student is cracking an egg into a wide stainless steel bowl, but he's not an aspiring chef.
EMMANUEL QUAIDOO: My name is Emmanuel Quaidoo. I'm a first-year medical student, and we are making a spinach and feta frittata which is one of the healthy alternatives for breakfast that we learned so far.
ENG: Quaidoo and about a dozen of his University of Chicago classmates are here on a stormy spring night taking a culinary nutrition class they won't even get credit for. Their medical school, like most across the nation, doesn't offer this kind of hands-on training. In fact, only about a quarter of American med schools offer the 25 hours of nutrition training recommended but not required by the National Academy of Sciences. So the students are here at night learning from doctors Sonia Oyola and Geeta Maker-Clark. Maker-Clark did study culinary medicine, but it wasn't at med school.
GEETA MAKER-CLARK: This training was something that I pursued on my own after I graduated from residency and really received none of that kind of nutritional information of any kind during medical school.
ENG: So this spring she and her colleagues launched a pilot based on a culinary medicine course taught at Tulane University. But there med students are required to take it. The four-week class starts with about an hour on diet-related disease...
SONIA OYOLA: So pre-hypertension - 120 to 139.
ENG: ...And how to treat it with food...
OYOLA: So what were your suggestions for his breakfast?
ENG: ...Followed by a healthy dose of hands-on cooking.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: So I'm making a quick granola.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Banana nut muffin.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Breakfast tacos.
ENG: Studies show this kind of personal experience makes doctors much more likely to pass along health and nutrition information to their patients, but no medical board requires doctors to study it. Those governing the first four years of med school say this kind of training is really more appropriate for later residency programs. But Mary Leih-Lai, who oversees the residency standards at the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, says no, it's not their job either.
MARY LEIH-LAI: We don't dictate the detailed requirements. We leave that up to the programs.
ENG: So few programs are eager to add these courses on their own. And that kind of buck passing frustrates Stephen Devries.
STEPHEN DEVRIES: I did a four year extra intensive training program in cardiology and didn't receive one minute of training in nutrition. That's got to stop.
ENG: A few years ago, Devries left his cardiology practice to lead the Gaples Institute, aimed at expanding nutrition training in medicine. This summer he's launching an online nutrition course for doctors. But he also wants to reach students. So we recently met with fellow nutrition advocates who want to add nutrition questions to medical board exams, change accreditation standards and tie medical training grants to nutrition education. David Eisenberg was also at that summit. He’s with the Samueli Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health. He's also frustrated by the situation, but he sees it mostly as a slow reaction to what he calls a tsunami of obesity and diabetes.
DAVID EISENBERG: I don't think we could have predicted that health care professionals would need to know so much more about nutrition, nor did we expect that we'd need to know more about movement and exercise or being mindful in the way we live our lives or eat or how to change behaviors.
ENG: Back at the Chicago cooking class, changing behaviors is exactly what they're trying to do. In just two hours, students like Erik Kulenkamp have mastered 12 new dishes to share with patients.
ERIK KULENKAMP: We don't get a lot of devoted curriculum time to this issue. And I feel like it's one of the things that patients are most curious about and have the most questions about - things that they can do to prevent things from happening rather than treat them once they occur.
ENG: For now this class is just a small grant-funded pilot. But Maker-Clark envisions a day when it's standard fare, all American med schools. For NPR News, I'm Monica Eng in Chicago.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.