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3-Course Interview: Tim Harlan 

The Tulane University chef-turned-doctor talks about food as medicine

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Chef-turned-doctor Tim Harlan is the assistant dean for clinical services at Tulane University School of Medicine and executive director of the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, a culinary teaching facility for medical students and the community, where participants learn to view food "as medicine." Harlan speaks at the sixth annual James Beard Foundation Food Conference Oct. 19. He talked with Gambit about what the future of food as medicine looks like.

The topic at this year's conference is rethinking the future of food. What's the future of food as medicine?

Harlan: We started out with this idea that we would teach medical students how to cook and we would use that as a metaphor for helping them understand how to work with their patients differently. That's evolved into ... taking that information ... and translating that into the conversation that they will have in the examination room with their patients about food. ... [H]ow do you help [physicians] with substantive messaging for their patients that can have an impact on their health? We can give them the tools to be able to make those changes with their patients — and the dialogue. ... Our data says people have improved their diets. ... [T]he challenge now is to see what we've learned here in New Orleans and learn how to scale it to other providers.

What are the challenges in getting people to eat healthier?

H: I think the challenge for folks across the spectrum — no matter the socioeconomic class, profession, whether they are a truck driver or a secretary or a chef — (is that) most of us unfortunately don't have those skills to manage our own day-to-day nutrition. There's a lot of historic reasons for that: There's no more home economics classes taught in the schools; there's a shift to the two-parent families who are both working — we're all busy and there's easy access to simple, pre-prepared calorie-dense foods that have clearly contributed to the problem of obesity as well as diet-related illness.

  In our community programming ... we want you to learn how to read a recipe ... build a weekly menu, plan for the week, go to the grocery store, cook, plan for leftovers and then also start working toward thinking differently about all of that. ... We take the best research, which is the Mediterranean diet, and we translate that for the American kitchen. We certainly do not focus on weight loss. We focus on eating great food that just happens to be great for you.

Chefs are a big part of the equation but don't always welcome change when it comes to their cooking techniques. What does the future of food look like for restaurants?

H: It's not just chefs; it's the food industry as a whole. The problem is that there is this perception among chefs that (food) has to be really salty and really fatty and really greasy and really rich. But the foods that are healthy taste better, period. There's tons of research about this. I can put a beef stroganoff in front of you, and then I can put a reduced-fat or a lower calorie, healthier version in front of you: if you're blind-folded, you're going to choose the healthier one about 85 percent of the time. Unless I tell you first, and if I tell you first, those numbers are almost exactly reversed. Part of this lies in our perception of how we think about food. Getting from point A to point B, that's a huge undertaking. We want to have a role in that and I think that's the pie in the sky for us at the Goldring Center. We are developing programming for chefs right now ... and we absolutely see this as a key.

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