New Seattle doctors learn to prescribe food as medicine | KUOW News and Information

New Seattle doctors learn to prescribe food as medicine

Jul 20, 2016

You don’t expect to see doctors in a kitchen.

Normally you’d find newly minted doctors at Swedish Cherry Hill hospital seeing patients. Instead, a group of them is spending an afternoon chopping onions, red bell peppers and mushrooms under the instruction of Dr. Tanmeet Sethi.


Sethi wants to change the way doctors think about treating chronic diseases. Often it’s with drugs. Sethi said that doesn’t get to the root cause of the problem. She argues that what we eat can have a significant impact on our health.

“Food makes a big difference, in fact, much bigger difference than pharmaceutical medications we use when used diligently,” Sethi said.

While Bryn Chowchuvech chops vegetables, his teammate Bari Laskow consults the recipe. Their task is to make spaghetti and meat sauce. Each group will make a variation of the recipe.

What doctors are learning here is not about counting calories or fat. It’s more about real food — vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

Sethi said eating highly processed foods contributes to a host of health problems: “Inflammation, heart disease, stroke, depression, brain health — you could go on and on.”

Sethi started the culinary medicine curriculum at Swedish Cherry Hill, based on a curriculum that started at Tulane University.

The problem is, medical school doesn’t teach much about nutrition. “It’s like, OK guys: Mediterranean diet, it’s a thing. The end,” said Kirsten Day Hansen, one of the participants. 

Her colleague Laskow agreed. It’s not enough to go on when they see patients. “We’re so often telling our patients diet and exercise, diet and exercise. But we are never told what that means,” she said.

And sometimes doctors don’t always set the best examples themselves. They’re busy, like everybody else. Lisa Chan admits she tries to put together something quick or easy.

“I realize that I eat a lot peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and curry from a concentrate that probably has lots of sodium. I’m like, oh, there’s kind of a disconnect with me telling patients to eat healthy and I’m not really doing it. It definitely made me more aware,” Chan said.

And the more hands-on experience doctors have with food, the more likely they’ll pass the information along to patients, even when office visits are short.

In the future, Sethi hopes to create a similar class for patients.

Not your typical meat sauce. This one's made with mushroom, bell peppers and lentils to boost its nutritional content.
Credit KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

After cooking, the class gathered in a conference room to taste the four variations. The first dish is a classic spaghetti and meat sauce. The second has added mushroom and bells peppers — something everyone can do.

“What we’re trying to do when people come in is try to figure out what are you eating and how we can help you change that just a little,” Sethi said.

That little change can make a difference. “Think about it: I just halved my calorie intake and I upped my fiber and got some phytonutrients from those vegetables,” she said.

Sethi moves on to the next plate. The sauce has some meat, mushroom and peppers. But with some lentils mixed in, the fiber content goes up. 

And if you really want to amp up the fiber, go to the last dish which has zero meat. Instead it’s loaded with vegetables and lentils.

Change, Sethi said, doesn’t mean overhauling one’s diet. It can be small and gradual. And there are so many ways to do that.

“Your job,” Sethi said, “is to talk to patients about how to make change that’s sustainable and doable. No one who’s eating dish number one on a weekly basis is going to eat number four and like you, OK? They are going to be cursing you.”