Food as medicine: UNR Med integrates nutrition into med school curriculum

Nutrition awareness, education and practice stressed in new Medical Nutrition Initiative for future physicians

Misha Fotoohi, UNR Med Class of 2020, and classmates take part in a cooking demonstration and nutrition lesson as part of UNR Med's new Medical Nutrition Initiative. Photo by Brin Reynolds/UNR Med

Misha Fotoohi and classmates, one with a mixing bowl, laughing while cooking

True to the old adage, “An apple a day,” more physicians are integrating nutrition into their practice, empowering patients to take charge of their long-term health. Medical schools are taking notice, incorporating nutritional education before students enter clinical practice.

The Medical Nutrition Initiative at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine (UNR Med) is a new movement to incorporate nutrition awareness, education and practice for future physicians. Driven by a collaborative group of health care professionals, administrators, educators and students, their mission is to empower people to improve their health by putting unprocessed, whole foods onto their plates. 

“Conscientiousness of nutrition is spreading within the medical field like wildfire,” said Tasha Vazquez, UNR Med Class of 2022. “More and more physicians are implementing nutritional methods of treatment for chronic and inflammatory diseases and are sharing their successes and experiences.”

The initiative began last school year with hands-on workshops for medical students led by Vazquez, who first approached UNR Med educators with the idea while she was still a University of Nevada, Reno biology undergraduate. Vazquez, a former high school and collegiate track athlete, became a whole-foods vegan gradually, beginning when her parents started juicing when she was a teen.

School of Medicine students embraced the initiative. Third-year students Alyssa Eckert, Laura Moles and Samantha Carson started mapping nutrition content into first-year coursework. Graduate student Samantha Romindack and fourth-year medical student Erika Mauban worked on incorporating nutrition workshops into students’ clerkships. Vazquez, joined by student Deryan Smith, will continue the project as they move into their second year of medical school.

A January 2018 workshop for first-year medical students focused on the effects of dietary fiber on the gut microbiome. Students worked in groups to prepare a completely plant-based meal of jackfruit, tofu and tempeh tacos. The session ended with recent research showing the effects of fiber in preventing and reducing the effects of many chronic diseases.

In March 2018, UNR Med offered second-year medical students a similar workshop with an emphasis on obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Students learned how hormones affecting hunger, satiety and weight gain relate to the gut microbiome, as well as nutritional methods to prevent and treat obesity-related disease.

“By teaching nutrition and culinary principals to medical students, UNR Med is providing a realistic and sustainable method for future doctors to recommend dietary changes to their patients,” said Ranna Nash, UNR Med’s coordinator for student development and academic enrichment.

Thanks to the generosity of UNR Med donors, Vazquez traveled New Orleans earlier this month to represent the School of Medicine at the 2019 Health Meets Food culinary medicine conference, where she presented UNR Med’s program to educators from across the U.S.

The conference addressed the role nutrition plays in chronic disease, including dementia, mental disorders, cancer and more. “It was sobering and eye-opening for many of us,” Vazquez said.

The conference also included a symposium by the International Society of Neurogastronomy on the influence of nutrition on the brain and behavior, workshops on enhancing the flavors of whole food, and discussions led by local farmers and agricultural leaders.

“It was an incredible experience to witness the entire spectrum of what the future of culinary medicine looks like,” Vazquez said. “From ‘food scholarships’ for college students in need, to community cooking workshops changing lifestyles, today’s medical schools, universities and health care programs have been creative in finding ways to address health care using food.

“I felt lucky to represent UNR Med in inspiring other institutions, but I came back with far more inspiration and knowledge than I could have hoped for,” Vazquez added. “For that I feel incredibly humbled, and look forward to our work here.”

To learn more about supporting UNR Med’s Medical Nutrition Initiative, please contact Shari Netzel, director of development, at (775) 682-6077 or snetzel@unr.edu.

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