Food As Medicine:

Larner Student's Pilot Course Gets Future Doctors Cooking

December 4, 2023 by Janet Essman Franz

Collage of three photos showing two students preparing sweet potatoes, one student gesturing with a sweet potato in her hand, two students peeling carrots

Ginger, garlic, and curry aromas waft through the first-floor hallway in the medical education center, where sounds of light conversation blend with scraping, clinking, and chopping. Inside the Larner Classroom, medical students peel carrots, dice onions, and de-stem kale.

This is not a potluck social, it’s an academic class.

This semester, 28 first-year medical students are learning about culinary medicine, which pairs nutritional science with preventative health care. This evening’s session is one of five in a semester-long extracurricular program, developed by medical class of 2026 students Sarah Krumholz and Molly Hurd, that teaches about lifestyle interventions for chronic disease. Tonight, as the students learn about the role of vegetables and fruits in preventing disease, they prepare and eat their dinner.

On tonight's menu: Golden lentil soup, sweet potato stuffed with black beans, and cancer prevention.

Co-leaders of the Lifestyle Medicine Student Interest Group at UVM, Hurd and Krumholz recognized the value of including nutrition in medical education. Working with faculty advisor Whitney Calkins, M.D., assistant professor of family medicine, they developed the pilot class with an aim to educate future doctors on the science of culinary medicine and increase their confidence engaging with patients about nutrition, because nutrition counseling can save lives.

“Diet can be positively linked to disease outcomes. If you intervene early enough, you can make a difference in people’s health,” said Krumholz. “Being able to work with first-year medical students to lay foundational knowledge in nutrition and basic skills in counseling early in their training allows them to maintain that perspective as they continue their training and future patient care.”

Four people cooking together in a classroom, stirring and seasoning soup in a crockpot and sauteeing kale on an electric griddle

Medical students working together to prepare a meal with nutritious, low-cost ingredients and simple tools include (above photo, left to right): Oliver Koch, Isaac Sellinger, Raihan Kabir, Kyra Weaver, (top photo, left to right) Simran Multani, Zaymee Syeda, Molly Hurd, Jake Ayisi, and Ben Sebuufu.


In a classroom, a person scoops orange-colored soup into a bowl held by another person, as a third person observes.Benjamin Sebuufu '27 scoops soup for Dr. Dittus and Jake Ayisi '27. 


A registered dietitian, Krumholz was inspired to attend medical school by her experience counseling patients with diabetes and liver and cardiovascular diseases. At Boston Medical Center she talked to patients at bedside, often after acute coronary events or limb amputations resulting from uncontrolled diabetes. She also taught therapeutic cooking classes for people with chronic illness and served as a nutrition expert on a pediatric intervention study.

Hurd learned about culinary medicine while pursuing a certificate in integrative health at UVM, concurrent with a B.S. in neuroscience, graduating in 2019. She earned an M.S. in pharmacology at UVM in 2020. As part of her undergraduate coursework, Hurd studied abroad in Denmark and Iceland where she witnessed the benefits of health care focused on illness prevention through nutrition, exercise, and other lifestyle behaviors.

“Many primary care physicians [in the U.S.] don’t have skills to talk to their patients about nutrition or how to have an impact on patients’ diets,” Hurd said. “My goal for this class is to help students feel more comfortable talking about food and diet with patients.”

Course participants include Jake Ayisi ’27, who aspires to explain the reasons behind choosing some foods over others. “I’ve asked a physician for help with my diet, and he said he didn’t know enough about it. I want to be able to understand the macronutrients and micronutrients and give real advice. As opposed to saying, ‘avoid sugar, avoid sodium,’ I can tell them what to try instead,” Ayisi said.

Hamza Mirza ’27, has personal, along with professional, goals in mind: “I like food, I like cooking. I want to learn how to cook healthy for myself, and how to advise patients on easy ways to incorporate healthy eating practices,” Mirza said.

Each class focuses on a medical aspect of diet, including controlling obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, cancer survivorship, and nutrition through the lifecycle. Following a didactic segment, the students cook together as a group. To pay for recipe ingredients, Hurd and Krumholz applied for and received a Taste of Medicine micro-grant through the American Academy of Lifestyle Medicine.

On this evening, guest speaker Kim Dittus, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine, presents the didactic portion of the class. An oncologist and UVM Cancer Center member, Dittus’ research focuses on the impact of nutrition and exercise on improving cancer outcomes. She shows the students the scientific evidence linking food and health: Cancer prevalence is higher among people who eat fewer vegetables; Individuals who are food insecure tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables and are more likely to experience chronic conditions; Phytonutrients (chemical compounds produced by plants) play a role in cell signaling pathways; Insoluble fiber cleanses the digestive track and improves mucous thickness, important aspects of the immune system.

“In the Cancer Center, we work with patients to improve their fruit and vegetable intake because it’s so important,” Dittus said. Her advice for good health: Eat vegetables and fruits at every meal and snack, consume a variety of produce for a more diverse microbiome, and eat a “rainbow” of colors for essential phytonutrients.

Sarah Pfreundschun ’27 cites her personal experience with food to treat health concerns. “Nutrition helped me a lot with gut issues. I want to learn more about how to put nutrition into my practice,” she said. “As a future doctor, I want to help patients figure out their barriers to choosing a healthy diet and help them overcome those barriers stepwise.”

We have an opportunity to improve patient outcomes if we figure out the keys to lifestyle medicine, and so much of that is about social determinants of heath.”

Sarah Krumholz '26

A patient’s culture and food customs should factor into dietary recommendations, said Ali Chivers ’27 ’19. “Food is central to how we connect to each other, and to our culture. As a future physician, I hope to provide advice to patients that helps them make nutritional choices connected to their culture, such as healthy alternatives to their traditional foods.”

As an example, “If you tell a patient to eat more protein, but [their traditional dishes] are vegetarian, it’s important to have knowledge to navigate that,” said Harjas Sabharwal ’27.

Appropriate counseling on dietary improvements must also consider patients’ economic and social conditions, including employment status, disabilities, and access to resources, said Krumholz. That’s why this course examines social determinants and preparing meals without expensive ingredients or elaborate tools. Recipes prepared in class typically involve using a hot plate or microwave and nonperishable foods that are low-cost and nutrient-dense, because “not everyone has access to a full kitchen,” Krumholz said. “We have an opportunity to improve patient outcomes if we figure out the keys to lifestyle medicine, and so much of that is about social determinants of heath.”

Outside of class, Jake Ayisi has been making the dishes for himself, enjoying the variety, ease of preparation, and frugality. “I can make a frittata one morning for the week ahead, and it’s nutritious and inexpensive,” he said. “I was surprised to learn how many recipes you can make on a budget, and how cost-effective eating nutritiously can be.”

Krumholz and Hurd plan to offer the culinary medicine extracurricular course again in 2024 while they explore funding opportunities to support the course after they graduate.

Two people standing next to a sink, one washing a sweet potato, the other holding a bowl of washed sweet potatoes, both smiling at the camera and giving a

Joseph Du and Evan Baugh scrub sweet potatoes in the Larner Medical and Graduate Student Lounge.