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'Food as Medicine' Must Be a Pillar of our Medical Care, Says Dr. Geeta Maker-ClarkPrint

Local Food | August 12, 2019 | By Diane Conners

'Food as Medicine' Must Be a Pillar of our Medical Care, Says Dr. Geeta Maker-Clark
 
Thought-Leader Series, Farms, Food & Health Conference

 

Geeta Maker-Clark, MD, will be a featured speaker at the Farms, Food & Health Conference with Culinary Medicine Training September 26–29, in Traverse City, Michigan. She is Coordinator of Integrative Medicine Education at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago and director of Culinary Medicine, a curriculum that teaches future doctors about clinical nutrition while also cooking in a teaching kitchen with a chef. She is the founder and chair of the annual Food as Medicine symposium at North Shore University Health System, which draws over 200 physicians and patients to hear the latest in up-to-date, evidence-based nutritional medicine. Her integrative clinical practice focuses on the therapeutic and preventative use of food as medicine, and also utilizes herbs, botanicals, and mind-body therapies alongside allopathic medicine. She frequently speaks around the country on nutrition and optimal health at conferences as diverse as Integrative Medicine for the Underserved to the James Beard Food Summit, as well as at farmers markets, festivals, community organizations, schools, and on radio and TV.

Why should we be teaching culinary medicine in medical schools?
Well, traditionally, medicine in its earliest roots and its earliest iterations as a healing practice was entirely based around food. Whether you look at Greek, Roman, Chinese medicine or Ayurveda from India, they were almost entirely food-based systems with additional use of botanicals and plants; as well as emotional medicines that were used in community, like ceremony, ritual, singing, and dancing. As Western allopathic medicine emerged, these aspects of health were really minimized. And as the pharmaceutical industry began to influence health care we saw a shift toward pharmaceutical medicine to the point where now when people think of medicine they think of pills. Things have radically shifted from the roots of healing to what we call Western medicine now.
 
Nutrition education really became a victim of that transition. Medical education, even though there are existing rules about offering 25 hours of nutrition education, rarely complies with this, and it is often offered in ways that are not practical for application. Learning about nutrition in a biochemistry class is very different from the nutrition I teach in a culinary medicine teaching kitchen curriculum like the one we teach at the University of Chicago. We are working with a chef in a teaching kitchen and making food and then eating it together and discussing the health implications of this recipe. I think it is vital that doctors learn how to talk about food and to teach people about ways to use food that are practical, affordable, and delicious. I don’t think that means doctors all need to be chefs, but in training future doctors there needs to be some exposure to food as part of clinical nutrition. That is what a culinary medicine program provides.   
 
What do current doctors need to know, since they didn’t get this in medical school?
I look through the lens of integrative medicine. I believe there are so many things that are integral to the health and well-being of a human and to a community. A big part of it is food and what we grow in communities and what we put into our bodies. And it also revolves around who we eat our food with and how we eat our food. Are we mindfully eating our food? Are we sitting down and making space for eating and being deliberate about enjoying the meal in front of us, or are we eating on the go and eating just to get some food in so we can get to the next thing we have to do?

That impacts the way we digest that food and how well we assimilate the food into our bodies, and also our mental health around our food consumption—and the rhythm of our days, really. So the mindful eating piece is important to me. And then I also just feel very strongly about community being a part of food—sitting down and eating family dinners and having other meals with people we care about because that is how we build culture and build shared experience. I think that is also something we need to be very intentional about. It is something that is easy to let go with the pace of modern life. 

FIVE FEATURED SPEAKERS

Oran Hesterman
, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Fair Food Network

Geeta Maker-Clark, M.D., Clinical Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Integrative Medical Education, Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago

Deanna Minich, Ph.D., Teaching Clinician, Certified Food & Spirit Practitioner Program and Food & Spirit, LLC

Drew Ramsey, M.D., Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons

Stephen Rivard, M.D., Co-Founder and Corporate Medical Director, Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT
 
Read bios and register at FarmsFoodHealth.org

Registration for the full Farms, Food and Health Conference (including the Friday evening keynote) is $135. 
Dr. Maker-Clark's demonstration and keynote address will take place on
Sunday, September 29th as a separate ticketed event.
Scholarships may be available. 

Give us some pearls of insight for how to implement this, from your own clinical practice.
For me I make the conversation around food a priority with every patient, no matter what they are coming in with, whether they have a cold or are currently in the middle of cancer treatment. Food is a necessary part of every person’s life. They are consuming food every day, so it is a really relevant conversation. Every visit that I have I set aside time, even if it is just a couple of minutes, to have a conversation about what they are eating and what small steps could be changed to improve their overall health. 
 
For someone with cancer who is undergoing treatment and has a loss of appetite from the side effects of chemotherapy—I will talk with them about a nutrient-dense food like bone broth, something they could sip throughout the day and enjoy the nourishing aspects of something delicious, even though it is not something substantial like they were eating before. If it’s an upper respiratory infection, I am going to take a moment to discuss that this is a good time to avoid dairy, which can be mucus-producing, and to stay as hydrated as possible with broths and soups rather than eating food that is heavier and takes more energy to digest.
 
I know we have very limited time, but if you can decide how much time you want to spend and commit to having that conversation at every visit, it becomes a part of your world view and the patient’s world view. I also depend very heavily on handouts. If I don’t have time to get through some things, I will give my patients some reading material that they can take home and look through that is comprehensive.
 
Is there anything you recommend for mental health?  Let’s say someone is coming in with depression.
 
I talk with people about keeping their blood sugar levels stable throughout the day if they have mental health issues. Appetite can be decreased if you have depression, and if blood sugar levels plummet this can really worsen mood. Conversely, some people might rely on emotional eating when their mental health is suffering. They may overeat or binge eat or eat unhealthy foods to soothe themselves. And that can also impact them negatively. We discuss the importance of eating in ways that keeps their blood sugar level stable and optimizes nutrition.
 
It is also vital to have certain nutrients to support neurotransmitter production—B vitamins, zinc, magnesium. I’ll let them know the B vitamins are found in dark leafy greens, magnesium is in legumes and nuts, and how a plant-based diet can help support their neurotransmitter production.
 

This activity has been approved for AMA PRA Category 1 Credit(s).

Is there a patient success story that you like to share that shows the value of a physician focus on food for health?
 
I have so many! I’ve had some patients who’ve made small changes to their diet, specifically patients with autoimmune disorders who have arthritic pain, neuralgias, headaches, and generalized fatigue. They have really noticed changes in their symptomatology by making small changes in their diet—by increasing their vegetable intake and increasing intake of turmeric and ginger.
 
Recently I had a patient who had chronic GI distress, for almost 20 years, and with the help of some functional foods, elimination of dairy and sugar, and change from raw vegetables to cooked was able to virtually eliminate this difficult problem.
 
Every day I am amazed at how effective this integrative viewpoint and nutritional intervention is on patients’ well-being. I have “aha” moments every day. It is very uplifting, very rewarding work.
 
It looks like from the beginning of your training, you were interested in integrative medicine. Can you fill us in on what shaped that choice, and why family medicine in particular?
 
Family medicine is a decision that came out of my medical school training. I wanted to be involved in the care of full families. I did not want to see just one member of families. I really feel like families work together as units and small communities to impact each other’s health. Most rotations were focusing on one body part, or one person in the family, but without the big picture of the full family’s health. I also wanted to deliver babies as well as take care of those babies as they grew up through the years! About seven years into my post-residency training I decided to get an integrative medicine fellowship at the University of Arizona through Dr. Andrew Weil. I noticed my education had some holes in it that I felt were very important to fill, and I needed to practice in a way that was more authentic to me.
 
It was also important for me to re-introduce aspects of my own culture into my healing practices as a physician. I am East Indian. My parents are immigrants from India. They came here in the ’60s when there was a physician shortage, and the U.S. was recruiting top physicians from India to come and alleviate that shortage. My father is a surgeon, and I grew up in a traditional Indian household. My mom cooked mostly Indian food, which comes from a deep healing tradition around using food as medicine. That sort of shaped my early feelings about it—I think food is an integral part of people’s family culture. So, often it is a way to connect patients back to their sources of comfort and where those come from, as well as remind them of the power of their own background and ethnicity to support their health. If you trace back just a few generations every person in the United States comes from a rich culture of healthy, medicinal foods.
 
Why are you excited about coming to this conference and physician training?  What makes it unique?
 
I think that the intersection between farming and food and health is really vital to the health of our nation going forward. We need to be cross-pollinating our conversations across multiple systems to create a healthier food system for our people. If we all just continue our conversations only among our small professional communities, we lose the opportunity for us to benefit from each other’s wisdom.
 
I think that it is very important that we are hearing from seed keepers, farmers, food producers, distributors; that we are talking with people who are working in schools, that we are making sure there is access to nutrient-dense foods throughout communities. The health care system desperately needs to understand that food is a vital part of health, and that we can speak to each other in a common language so we can be cohesive and equitable. This conference has the possibility of having those kinds of rich conversations across disciplines. I am delighted to have these conversations amplified.
 
Explore more Dr. Geeta Maker-Clark's work at drgeetamakerclark.com

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