The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / Agriculture  / Physician on a Mission

Physician on a Mission

Doctors get a pass for having terrible handwriting, but should they get a pass for being lousy cooks?

Dr. David Eisenberg doesn’t think so. He has spent the last 10 years trying to find a way to get doctors and medical students into the kitchen. In late March, Eisenberg wrapped up the sixth Healthy Kitchens/Healthy Lives conference, an academic partnership between Eisenberg’s home base, Harvard Medical School, and the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. The goal is to turn doctors and nurses into born-again cooks who will use their own healthy behaviors to influence their patients.

Eisenberg’s ultimate vision is a teaching kitchen in every medical school and every hospital. “The only way to combat the obesity epidemic is to get people back in the kitchen,” he says. “Culinary literacy is at an all time low, and it shows in the choices we make about food. Physicians are no better than the general population. We learn next to nothing about nutrition in medical school, and as a profession, we have almost no time to cook. I believe that if we can give health professionals the most up-to-date research about nutrition and teach them healthy cooking skills, we have the elements of a novel strategy to combat childhood and adult obesity.”

Eisenberg is an associate professor of medicine and a board certified internist with three decades of ivy-crested academic credentials. But his passion for cooking dates even further back than his interest in medicine. Becoming a physician meant breaking a four-generation chain of professional bakers. His eyes mist over when he describes the aroma of his father’s bakery in Brooklyn. In 1979, Eisenberg became the first U.S. medical exchange student to China. He returned home with a healthy respect for traditional Chinese medicine,a belief in the idea of “food as medicine” and a huge Chinese cleaver. His favorite quote is from “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine,” circa 400 BCE.

“To administer medicines to diseases which have already developed and thereby suppress bodily chaos which has already occurred is comparable to the behavior of those who would begin to dig a well after they have grown thirsty, or those who would begin to cast weapons after they have already engaged in battle. Would these actions not be too late?”

Dr. David Eisenberg at the HKHL conferenceDoctor’s orders, even in the kitchen

Eisenberg has the bow tie of a Harvard professor, the eyes of a public health zealot and the palate of a baker. On the second day of the conference, he tied on an apron with confidence, and, following a parade of professional chefs — including Joyce Goldstein, Suvir Saran, and Culinary Institute of America Executive Chef Bill Briwa — he led the 400-plus attendees through a cooking demo of a favorite stir-fry dish.

He sliced mounds of mushrooms and trimmed a stack of shrimp with great determination, if not the elegance of the pros. “I only use one pan and the same cleaver I’ve been using since I studied medicine in China,” he smiled, standing not far from a gleaming batterie of cuisine display of “essential pots, pans, gadgets and knives.” His dish, accompanied by whole grains and a simple Asian sauce, was an example of the kind of fast, healthy cooking repertoire he hopes to inspire in his colleagues. “The variations are endless, the technique — timeless,” Eisenberg said, positioning the plated dish for the conference cameras.

Set in the lusciousness of wine region in early spring, the Healthy Kitchens/Healthy Lives conference may be for health professionals the best-kept secret in America. Its three days are densely packed with nutrition science, clinical data, cooking demos by gifted chefs and an opportunity for each attendee to be hands-on in the kitchen. Not every attendee was convinced that the conference would deliver a serious learning experience. “A boondoggle! In the wine country. With CME [Continuing Medical Education] credits? What’s not to like?” one physician confided at the opening reception. That was Thursday.

By Sunday morning, the same skeptic was standing in the CIA’s grand teaching kitchen, wearing an apron and a white paper toque, struggling to master charring and skinning jalapeño peppers for a Romesco sauce and rapturously reciting all the nutrition nuggets absorbed over the last 72 hours. Across the room, a CIA chef demonstrated how to grind a spice mix for cardamom-roasted cauliflower. In the main conference room, a chef and a Harvard physician ran a joint session on “Nutritional Counseling in the Primary Care Setting.”

Food Pyramid is out, wine is in?

World-class faculty from Harvard Medical School kept the conference crackling,challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Pyramid and debunking the eat-no-fat-and-be-cancer-free diet and the notion that milk is necessary for bone health. On the other hand, wine and dark chocolate were elevated to health food status by epidemiologist Eric Rimm of the Harvard School of Public Health. The audience, plumped with internists, family practitioners and pediatricians drank in the pie charts, the regression analyses and the clinical data like chardonnay at an afternoon cocktail party. At the conference’s end, rather than heading out to sample some Napa Valley pinot noirs, the physicians were still inside eagerly taking notes, chopping onions and wondering how to take the lessons of the weekend home, for themselves and their patients.

Eisenberg and his Culinary Institute of America counterpart, Greg Drescher, the visionary director of education at the Napa school, have been working on this conference concept since 1997. It was not easy for Eisenberg to get the medical establishment to bless the idea that a conference focused on food could be good medicine. But as diabetes and obesity rates have tripled over the last few decades, Eisenberg made headway within his colleagues. Each year the conference has sold out, and the proportion of physicians has increased. This year, 66 percent of the attendees were MDs.

After attending last year’s conference, internist John R. Principe from Chicago started a group wellness program with his patients. He teaches cooking, leads them through mindfulness exercises and even takes them on grocery shopping excursions. By the end of the program, Principe’s patients showed measurable health improvements — even if they had not lost an ounce of weight. After sharing his results at the conference, he found himself fielding a flurry of questions from fellow physicians on everything from what to cook and how to bill.

Eisenberg flashes up a slide from a 2004 Journal of the American Medical Association article that summarizes research findings. Among them: MDs who wear seat belts, exercise and don’t smoke are more apt to advise their patients to follow their lead. “Practicing a healthful behavior was the most consistent and powerful predictor of physicians counseling patients about related prevention issues,” said Eisenberg.

Louisa Kasdonis a Boston-based food writer and former restaurant owner. She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, among others.

Photos, from top: Conference attendees in the kitchen

Dr. David Eisenberg at the podium. Credits: Louisa Kasdon

Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and  the founder and CEO of Let's Talk About Food, an organization that engages the public around food issues in our world. Kasdon was the food editor for Stuff magazine and the contributing editor for food for the Boston Phoenix.  Winner of the MFK Fisher Award for Culinary Excellence, she has  written for Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, among others.

  • heatherzenRN 7·22·13

    I would love to set up one of these conferences or workshops here in Hospital-land…Baltimore, MD!!!!!
    I know a sensational chef and could get him here in a HOT second to collaborate with on recipes for cancer treatment and prevention.

  • Louisa Kasdon 7·23·13

    I can put you in touch with David Eisenberg and his team.