Well-Being//

Healthy Eating Starts with Cooking for Life

How a medical student and a middle schooler are learning new ways to look at food and well-being

ESstock/ Shutterstock
ESstock/ Shutterstock

Payton, a Chicago middle-schooler, lives with her single mom, Cynthia, a sanitation worker whose strenuous work exacerbates her arthritis. Their neighborhood is dominated by fast food and convenience stores that offer few healthy options for cooking. Across town, Kamya, a busy medical student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, has fallen into unhealthy eating habits and enrolls in a culinary medicine class called “Cooking Up Health” to learn about the health-promoting power of cooking easy and delicious meals high in crucial nutrients.

In the short film, “Cooking for Life,” Kamya and Payton come together to learn the life-sustaining value of cooking healthy food when Kamya starts leading a class that teaches Payton how to choose and prepare the most nourishing options. Together they appreciate the key lesson that essentially, food is medicine. The film is part of TakeFive, a program of The TakeCare Campaign, which is a national initiative that offers tools to help people improve their own health and well-being through messages embedded in inspirational short films. As Cynthia sums it up, she learns that she can pay a little more for healthy food now or, pay much more later when she ends up at the doctor. She discovers that we already have the power when she says, “We are our own first healthcare provider.”

“Cooking for Life” inspires us by showing how much our lives can improve through healthy choices, one meal at a time. Here are a few ideas about how you can enhance your own power and find your own way toward this goal:

Recognize the Important Role that You Play in Your Health

Throughout human history, food has been a life-force that defines entire cultures, heals our physical and emotional wounds, and brings people together. Most importantly, though, it’s a starting point for becoming—and remaining—healthy and happy. Substantial research demonstrates that roughly 80 percent of staying healthy and free of chronic disease is determined by factors outside the doctor’s office, including a nourishing diet.

Kamya, whose family history includes diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, realized that her hectic schedule had lulled her into a diet that revolved around quick fixes like plain pasta. She was determined to change it, learn better habits, and take charge of her own health – and use that knowledge to help her counsel her future patients. In her medical school course, Kamya learned the research behind food and health, then gained hands-on experience cooking dishes that promote health, like a curry full of anti-inflammatory spices and cancer-fighting cauliflower. Kamya then translated her new knowledge to help the next generation, as she engaged Payton and her classmates in a Chicago Public School through games and taste-tests to learn about healthy diet choices and new foods.

Get the Whole Family Involved

Payton took these important lessons home and involved her mother and sister in preparing meals. And in cooking together, they actually had fun!  Payton felt a sense of pride in serving them good meals, and teaching them new things, like how chicken tenders can be really tasty when they’re baked instead of breaded and fried. Payton also learned that her sister ate healthier foods when she helped prepare them!

Kamya, whose eating habits had deteriorated after her mother died of cancer, said she wished she had learned the life skills of healthy cooking and eating sooner. But she was gratified to be able to impart this lesson to other families like Payton’s. Any family can start down this healthier path, particularly if they can learn it together and make the process fun and engaging!

Find Ways to Get Over the Hurdles

Kamya and Payton’s family shared a common barrier to healthy eating – busy schedules. It’s arguably the most frequent reason people cite for eating fast food or less nutritious meals. But there are ways to combat this. For instance, try to meal prep ahead of the work week so that you have lunches ready and healthy snacks that are easy to grab and go.

Many of us live in neighborhoods like Payton’s that have limited access to healthy fruits, vegetables, and sources of protein. Lack of affordable transportation makes it even harder. But increasingly areas offer convenient alternatives such as community gardens, free cooking classes and veggie Rx programs. Do some research online or at your local community center to see what’s available. Most importantly, you will discover that it is never too late to make a change in your health by changing your choices. It just starts with a single, healthy bite.

Melinda R Ring, MD, FACP, ABOIM is an advisor on the film, Cooking for Life, as a part of The Healthy US Collaborative’s TakeCare Campaign. She is also the director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine and Medical Social Sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

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