The Tulane University program brings chefs, medical students, and patients together to cook their way to better health.
Credit: Photo: Cultura RM Exclusive / Leon Harris / Getty

Give a person a fish, you feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish and you feed them for a lifetime. But teach them to cook the fish in a healthy way, and you may just help them avoid diabetes and congestive heart failure. At least, that's the idea behind the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University.

The center brings together medical students, trained chefs, and local people in the first-ever dedicated teaching kitchen at a medical school. The center is free to the public and offers classes for beginner adults, intermediate adults, children, and families. Participants learn to cook in addition to discussing nutrition and budgeting tips.

However, the center is doing more than trying to help people get healthier—they're doing research into just how effective their programs are.

A story on NPR highlighted a study the center recently began, to determine whether cooking classes can actually help people with congestive heart failure (CHF) avoid trips to the hospital. The 18-month study will determine if teaching patients to make their own meals can cut their 30-day readmission rate in half.

CHF is a disease that affects 6.5 million Americans. Generally, about 22 percent of CHF patients are readmitted within 30 days, and hospitals are not reimbursed for these readmissions.

One major risk factor of CHF is an unhealthy diet. Unfortunately, many traditional New Orleans foods are high in saturated fats and sodium, and many members of the population are at elevated risk for high blood pressure and coronary disease.

Many of the participants, who live below the poverty line, have limited access to transportation. To solve this problem the center budgets for taxi vouchers to bring CHF patients to and from the classes. The program also serves as a much-needed social outlet between patients and medical students who also take the cooking classes—and everyone gets to walk away with a freshly prepared meal.

The cooking classes meet patients where they’re at, instructing them how to make substitutions in meals they already make. For example, replacing mushrooms and lentils for meat in pasta dishes and removing pickled pork and sausage in a traditional New Orleans dish of red beans and rice—while using smoked paprika to keep the flavor.

"I had one 50-year-old patient who in 20 years had never cooked for her husband before," Sarris told NPR. "We gave her the support to try it, and the effects were pretty profound. Before she took classes, chopping veggies seemed overwhelming to her."

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This program is especially pertinent for helping medical students learn to see food as part of an overall treatment plan. Dennis Ren, a Tulane medical student, speaking on the website, explains that the program teaches him tangible advice to offer to patients. Instead of suggesting a patient simply cut back on salt, he can suggest patients replace it with something acidic such as lemon juice, to keep their food flavorful.

Kristi Artz, a physician and culinary medicine specialist at Spectrum Health told NPR, "Up to this point, we've just been focused on disease care. If we could implement [culinary] programs as part of standard medical treatment, we could give out food prescriptions. That's where I hope this leads."