Dr. Michelle Hauser is an internal medicine physician and chef based in the Bay Area. She also teaches a culinary medicine elective to medical school students at Stanford University.
What do pots and pans have in common with medicine? Ask physician-chef Dr. Michelle Hauser.
Her journey to medicine followed a winding path, beginning in her high school years. She developed an interest in the medical field early on but was constantly discouraged from pursuing a career as a physician. Raised in small-town Iowa, she received little support for her educational aspirations and was convinced she had to find something else.
So, she tied on an apron, threw on a hat, and found herself in culinary school one year later. Growing up, Hauser always enjoyed cooking, often spending time in the kitchen with her parents. After being dissuaded from a profession in medicine, she decided to enroll in an accelerated program at Le Cordon Bleu, Minneapolis/St. Paul.
“I have loved to cook for as long as I can remember. While I was growing up, my best memories are from the times that I spent in the kitchen with my mom and dad. When I was with my mom, we baked or made desserts. My dad preferred to make savory dishes; he ran a restaurant when I was young.
Later, despite wanting to become a doctor, I chose to go to culinary school because I loved to cook and got little support for my medical ambitions or going to college generally.”
In Minneapolis, she trained professionally as a chef while learning from world-class instructors. Over time, she developed a specialized interest in nutritional cooking and ways to make healthy food delicious. Hauser found a personal passion in the culinary arts, and truly loved what she was doing. However, she also knew that she would regret never trying to become a physician. And, for the first time, there was no one standing in her way.
So, after she completed her final culinary internship at Chez Panisse, she began her premedical studies at Humboldt State University. While taking classes there, she also taught healthy cooking lessons to support herself financially. It was during these tutorials that she discovered the transformative powers of nutrition and lifestyle changes.
“These [healthy cooking classes] were oftentimes the students’ first introduction to having food that is delicious and healthy. I’ve always taken the approach that food has to be delicious first and foremost. So, I didn’t need to convince anyone to cook like this. It wasn’t like I was lecturing them on health and nutrition; we just focused on how to make delicious dishes that happened to be good for you.
And then they just started eating that way in their day-to-day lives. Over the course of the five years I taught classes, I would have people come back and thank me, saying things like, ‘my daughter doesn’t take antidepressants anymore,’ or ‘my husband doesn’t take blood pressure medications anymore.’ Their whole families were eating healthier. People started telling me success stories that I never expected.”
Through cooking classes, Hauser could feel the impact she was having on the health of others, causing her interest in medicine to grow further. Fortunately for her, she would have the chance to explore her passions at one of the top institutions of the world.
After completing her premedical requirements, Hauser was admitted into Harvard Medical School. However, almost immediately, she observed a discord. Despite her experiences with nutrition and lifestyle as a cooking instructor, she discovered that these topics were not a focus of Western medicine at all.
In fact, medical students only spent a median of 17 hours over their four years on nutrition education. The results of that statistic were directly translated to the professional world of medicine. Physicians weren’t spending enough time discussing nutrition and diet with their patients.
Given that 80% of chronic disease is preventable with lifestyle changes, to Hauser, this was baffling.
“When I started medical school, I was very naive. I thought, ‘well, if we know that 80% of disease is caused by lifestyle factors, then there must already be a ton of people that focused on that.’ And, that was definitely not the case. I was very much taken aback. […] I then realized that this problem extended to the patients that physicians treat.
In medicine, generally, because of the way we approached talking about nutrition, we’re not very effective at helping people change their behaviors around it. And, that has this vicious cycle effect, where physicians, over many years, don’t see patients making changes. So, they think the patients can’t change or won’t change; but, that’s not the case at all. I really feel that it’s all due to the way we’re approaching it.”
So, Hauser took it upon herself to make a change. She began reevaluating ways of combining medicine and cooking to make a lasting impact on the lives of others.
Fast forward a few years, and she has managed to do just that. In addition to practicing “lifestyle medicine” with her patients as a primary care provider, she recently established a culinary medicine elective for medical students at Stanford University.
After witnessing the lack of nutrition education in her own medical training, she was inspired to make a change. Her class teaches students not only how to engage with patients about lifestyle and nutrition but also how to cook healthily for themselves.
“I saw a gap in medical education. It’s kind of crazy to me that, with such a huge burden of lifestyle-related diseases, like obesity, heart disease, cancer, we spend such a tiny portion of the time we have in medical school on nutrition.
So, we’re trying to teach students to engage with patients better about making practical changes to their diet. But, we realized that most students in medical school, just like the public, don’t know how to do that in their own lives. You can’t just teach people how to talk about something without actually teaching them how to do it in the first place. So, I thought a teaching kitchen is a great opportunity to have a hands-on lab for nutrition, but it’s also an opportunity to improve their own health while learning to talk to patients.”
After the students finish cooking a healthy meal, they bring the food to the table and engage in a round table discussion with Hauser and the other instructors. They explore the major health and nutrition lessons from that class and practice explaining these takeaways as they would to patients.
While Hauser actively advocates for an increase in nutrition education across the country, she is also working on an online content project to make culinary medicine videos and lesson plans openly available to medical institutions. She also engages in humanitarian research efforts with food banks and soup kitchens to increase healthy meal options for the underprivileged.
Outside of her professional endeavors, she manages to experiment with recipes in her own kitchen as well. For Hauser, cooking serves as both a de-stresser and creative outlet that allows her to maintain her own health and wellness. Her experiences as a chef have brought unique and valuable skills to her life in medicine, and vice versa. She actively updates her blog, Chef in Medicine, with new recipes and health tips in her free time.
“I think that the most important thing that my cooking […] has brought to [medical practice] is the knowledge of what it feels like to be healthy and to help those I care about live healthier and happier.
This combination makes me think very carefully before prescribing medications for things better treated with lifestyle — even if it is much faster and easier to write the prescription. I try to speak frankly with people about their full range of options — from lifestyle to medical management, and most frequently, a combination of the two — and help them choose the options that work best for them and are most effective. […] By incorporating, delicious, simple, healthy cooking (plus physical activity, adequate sleep, and other healthy lifestyle factors) into my life, I feel better equipped to use the best tool(s) from my proverbial toolbox to help meet people where they are to help prevent and treat disease.”