Culinary medicine -- where health meets food

Jan Dowell, dietitian and culinary medicine coordinator at Memorial Wellness Center. Photo courtesy of Memorial Wellness Center.

By Karen Ackerman Witter

The medical community is typically better at intervention than prevention. Culinary medicine is an emerging field to get health care practitioners actively engaged with patients on issues related to diet. There is good reason to do so. In the U.S., 96 million people have prediabetes, and eight out of 10 don’t know it. Of the American adult population, 69% are overweight or obese, and the typical American diet exceeds recommended levels for fat, sugar, refined grains and sodium.

“Eighty percent of metabolic diseases could be preventable by lifestyle changes,” says Dr. Nicole Florence, medical director of Memorial Wellness Center. “Culinary medicine is an evidence-based field that combines the science of medicine with the art of cooking,” explains Dr. Kanna Nallamothu, a physician with Memorial Wellness Center.

For 20 years, Memorial Health has had a bariatric surgery center, and for nine years a broader weight loss program. The Memorial Wellness Center at 320 E. Carpenter St. opened in May 2022. It offers comprehensive treatment options for weight loss and improved health through a multi-disciplinary approach. Culinary medicine is an integral component.

Florence says Memorial Wellness Center is designed to meet people where they are in a safe, non-judgmental, nurturing environment. The intent is to provide a more social and less clinical atmosphere and help people make lifestyle changes that are sustainable in order to improve their health and well-being. The Center takes a team approach with physicians, dietitians, physical therapists, nurses, behavioral health specialists and advanced practitioners helping clients. The diabetes-prevention program is nationally recognized.

There is a large teaching kitchen on the second floor, which is the heart of the culinary medicine program. Numerous classes are offered. Clients learn how to read food labels and cook healthy food, with an emphasis on a balanced plate of half fruits and vegetables, a quarter complex carbohydrates and a quarter protein. The principles of Mediterranean eating are promoted -- eating a plant-heavy diet with fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes and healthy oils such as olive oil. Participants learn how to find healthy and tasty alternatives to the foods they crave, use herbs and spices to add flavor and make healthy choices that are sustainable. Consideration is also given to personal and cultural food preferences of the individual and their family members, as well as accessibility and affordability.

By the time people come to get help, they often have tried lots of things but haven’t been successful, says Florence. “If we can encourage a 3-5% change, they will feel better and then come back to make another 3-5% improvement.” Clients learn how to make small changes that have an impact. Every person is different, and the basic framework needs to be customized to the individual to be sustainable.

There is a national certification program, and two individuals in Springfield are Certified Culinary Medicine Specialists -- Jan Dowell, a Memorial Wellness Center dietician focused on culinary medicine, and Dr. Stacy Sattovia, an internal medicine physician at SIU School of Medicine. Nallamothu is pursuing certification. She is an internist involved in primary care who became interested in learning more about applying culinary medicine to help patients.

Sattovia completed the Certified Culinary Medicine Specialist program in 2017, and is director of culinary medicine for SIU School of Medicine. She is also medical director of the office of continuing professional development and associate professor of clinical medicine.

For several years she has offered a culinary medicine elective for fourth-year medical students. “Nutrition education in medical school is pretty limited, and research shows that while patients often look to their physicians for nutrition advice, our ability to provide this counseling is quite limited,” said Sattovia.

The two-week nutrition course covers the basics of macronutrients, healthy patterns of eating, history of food, food insecurity and resources, food systems and policies. Students tour the Central Illinois Foodbank, go grocery shopping and cook. The importance of self-care is also emphasized. Memorial Wellness Center makes the teaching kitchen available for students.

As a result, SIU School of Medicine doubled its medical student elective offerings for this academic year. Sattovia’s hope is that this approach to practical nutrition will not only lead to improved self-care, but will translate to meaningful conversations with patients. There is also a culinary medicine group that cooks for the Compass for Kids program monthly and has been involved with the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association’s garden. The Center is also working to get more doctors directly involved in the culinary medicine program.

Clients need a doctor’s referral to access Memorial Wellness Center’s disease management health series services. The Wellness Series programs, designed to improve general health and wellness, are open to the public as an out-of-pocket option with no referral necessary.

Memorial Wellness Center also works with businesses in a variety of ways, offering corporate wellness and team-building activities where employees cook together in the kitchen. Culinary medicine is among the wellness programs included in Memorial Choice, an employer-purchased supplement to insurance plans that offers tools and resources for employees to learn about better health and health care services at lower costs.

For more information about Memorial Wellness Center go to

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