THANKS TO PHILANTHROPY, A U OF M TEAM IS HELPING US LIVE AND EAT BETTER ONE BITE AT A TIME
Ten U of M graduate students wait outside the teaching kitchen at the Good Acre in St. Paul. After an introduction to tonight’s topic—fats—they don aprons and head to the prep tables where Jenny Breen, a professional chef and U of M culinary nutrition instructor, waits for them next to a table full of vegetables, fresh greens, cans of coconut milk, bags of nuts and seeds, and containers of spices.
The students, who are in public health, medicine, nursing, integrative health, and social work programs, then get to work chopping, measuring, sautéing, and blending sauces, stews, and side dishes—all of which they’ll sample later on.
For many of them, the one-credit Food Matters class is their first exposure to the complex relationship between food and health. Like most health professionals, they’ve learned little about nutrition during their training. Medical students, for example, receive 17 to 21 hours of nutrition education over four years, most of which is focused on biochemical pathways, digestive enzymes, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
“It’s missing the big picture and the application to patient care, to their own self-care,” says Kate Shafto, a U of M physician who teaches the class with Breen.
Helping them understand what is and isn’t true about nutrition, and how to eat mindfully, cook unfamiliar foods, and discuss food and eating with patients and clients is the crux of the class. Breen and Shafto are now adapting those lessons for practicing health care professionals and the public through an initiative called Nourishing Minnesota.
A project of the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing, Nourishing Minnesota was created to cut through confusing messages about food and diet, and address a serious public health challenge—obesity, which affects more than one-third of adults in the United States and can lead to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and other health problems. “Seventy to 80 percent of health outcomes are unrelated to the health care system,” says the center’s director Mary Jo Kreitzer. “What people eat is a huge part of their health and well-being.”
ASSEMBLING THE INGREDIENTS
With a planning grant from the George Family Foundation in 2016, Kreitzer and colleagues launched Nourishing Minnesota by trying to quantify our knowledge about food and nutrition. That summer, their survey of 659 adults at the Minnesota State Fair confirmed what they suspected: Fewer than half knew that fruits and vegetables should compose about half of their diet, that trans fat is the least healthy fat, or that eating whole grains has health benefits. In addition, fewer than 40 percent said they cooked or prepared food for themselves or others daily.
“We have a whole generation coming up that’s pretty much grown up eating processed food and eating out,” Kreitzer says. “The whole notion of being able to prepare food is a novel concept for some.”
Respondents also said they looked to health care practitioners for advice. But studies have shown they, too, struggle with some of the same misconceptions about food and nutrition. “It’s been incredibly confusing for a consumer to sort out what to eat and not get swept up in fads,” she says.
Nutritionist Carolyn Denton, a Center for Spirituality and Healing faculty member who is co-leading the project, says the goal of Nourishing Minnesota is to “connect the dots.”
“I think of food as information for the body,” she says. “Nutrients are what trigger function. For instance, to sleep you need protein, B vitamins, magnesium, vitamins C and D, and complex carbohydrates. If any one of those is missing, you won’t sleep well.”
Many nutrition classes don’t make those connections, nor do they translate them to the dinner table. Additional funding from the George Family Foundation—plus gifts from the Oswald Family Foundation, Julie and Ken Riff, and Catherine Mayer—has allowed the Nourishing Minnesota team to take the next step. They’re now creating videos and fact sheets on topics such as beneficial fats, legumes, and telling your “food story” (how food influences us) to be used in classes and programs for the public and health professionals.
“We’re breaking this down into the what, the why, and the how of healthy eating,” Kreitzer says. For example, a fact sheet on beneficial fats lists foods they’re found in, describes what those fats do for the body (protect the heart, liver, and kidneys; produce hormones for mood and sleep; and provide energy, to name a few), and includes recipes for both beginning and experienced cooks.
Kreitzer and her colleagues know they can’t take on a super-sized challenge like changing the public’s eating habits alone, so they’ve been looking to others to help extend their efforts. They recently started a pilot project with Second Harvest Heartland, providing information and recipes in food boxes for the non-profit’s clients. They’re also in talks with the YMCA about training diabetes educators to teach the public; North Market, a grocery store and clinic in North Minneapolis, about offering a version of the Food Matters class for medical practitioners in the community; and a corporation that wants to educate its employees.
“Philanthropic funding has been critical to helping us get to this stage,” Kreitzer says. “It has allowed us to develop these resources and get some of these initiatives off the ground.”
PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING
One reason why the Food Matters class and its approach to nutrition education works is that it’s hands-on. Participants prep, cook, and eat their homework while absorbing broader lessons about food and well-being. “It’s about tasting, smelling, seeing, and understanding how the pieces fit together in terms of your health,” Breen says.
A survey of University of Minnesota medical students who took part in the inaugural class found their knowledge increased in a number of areas, including how to discuss diet modifications with patients who have chronic diseases, and how to help them change what they eat.
The current U of M students, too, say they have become more knowledgeable and improved their eating habits.
Leo Howard III, who works at a group home in North Minneapolis and is earning a master’s degree in youth development leadership, says the class taught him to eat more mindfully. “It makes you sit and be thoughtful about how and what you’re eating.
Theodore Wang, who is working toward a master’s in counseling psychology, says taking the class has increased his awareness of his food choices and helped him develop empathy for his clients. “The physical body influences the mind, and if you eat better, you can better cope with things like anxiety and depression,” he says. “This has made me more aware of how to change my diet, and it hasn’t been easy. But you can’t convince other people to live healthy if you’re not living healthy.”
Kim Kiser is editor of Legacy.
Watch a Nourishing Minnesota video on how to choose and cook fish: