Dr. Nimali Fernando chose Pediatrics because she enjoyed following children through their childhood. Now, "Dr. Yum" helps the whole family follow more healthy lifestyles by teaching them how to eat better.
Though a recent NEFM study says more than 50 percent of today’s kids will be overweight by the time they are 35, Dr. Fernando started creating the path of least resistance to weight loss in children years ago. She started giving out recipes that patients, and patients’ parents, could take home and try out.
“It made more of a difference than giving them more generic guidelines, you should have this many servings of vegetables,” Dr. Fernando says.
She realized, talking with her patients, that a lot of their issues came down to diet. Constipation, other GI issues — even behavior symptoms could often be somehow connected.
“It really motivated me to figure out how best to help change eating habits in the community where I live,” Dr. Fernando says. She started cooking classes out of a church to teach kids how to enjoy fresh, local, seasonal produce out of Virginia farms.
She was in a group practice but after about a year, decided to open her own practice and turned half the building into a teaching kitchen to demonstrate to patients. This kitchen-half is a nonprofit called the "Dr. Yum Project."
“It’s not enough to learn about nutrition and the biochemistry behind nutrition,” says Dr. Fernando. “I think we need to learn more about food and what food does to our bodies … For me to tell my patients that they have to eat brussels sprouts doesn’t do the job. I have to show them how to roast a brussels sprout to taste really delicious so their kids will want to eat it.”
Dr. Fernando recognizes that not much of an emphasis is placed on nutrition in medical school, but says that needs to change.
“I think that’s the important stuff we need to be able to relay to patients when we tell them that they need to eat better,” she says. “And if we ourselves don’t know how to do that, we can’t really relay that to others.”
She recognizes that she’s lucky she grew up in a home full of home cooking. “I come from a Sri Lankan American background. Both my parents grew up eating real food and had a culture where our one priority was to eat dinner home-cooked meal together.”
When she first started her website, she was just putting up her own family’s recipes or photos of the meals she prepared for her children.
“I think it's incredibly important that we serve as a model to our patients and to share the tips and tricks that we use ourselves to make healthy food accessible,” she says.
Dr. Fernando says that they talk about food a lot at her practice, whether it’s about a new meal she posted the night before or a recipe that showed up on her website. Patients tell her when they want to try something, and Dr. Fernando is all too happy to oblige.
“I try to give recipes out as much as I can. Even more than prescriptions, some days. I try to give out recipes because I think food really is medicine,” she says.
It’s not just young kids who experience her recipes, either. Dr. Fernando goes all the way to infancy.
“We have a baby food class that I teach every quarter called Doctor Yum’s First Foods. And in that class we teach families how to make baby foods that are a little bit outside of the box. Foods that challenge their developmental skills, foods that are flavorful. Foods that include more texture,” she says. “We try to get families to think about baby food as just a version of that they’re eating.”
In addition to tackling obesity through food, Dr. Fernando is hoping to battle food insecurity.
The average American family throws away $2,000 in wasted food every year. Dr. Fernando wanted to find a way for families to use their leftovers more practically. Using an app on her website, families can plug in ingredients and be given a recipe.
“We wanted to be able to educate families on how to use food that they don't necessarily have a recipe for, that might be leftover from another recipe. If you use the Meal Maker Machine, you can take a recipe that you want to make — a soup, a stir fry, a pasta — and then go through and pick the ingredients that you have on hand and then it will generate a customized recipe for you.”
While leaving her group practice to start her own practice/kitchen combo was a risk, Dr. Fernando knew in her heart it was a risk she had to take, and would advise herself to do again.
“The advice to myself would be to follow your passion and follow your heart,” Dr. Fernando says. “I knew that leaving a group practice would be risky but I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do, because I wanted to make a difference in my patients and also in my community.”
Illustration by Yi-Min Chun