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New UArizona med students use food to fight illness in cancer patients

Posted at 6:40 AM, Nov 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-01 21:39:12-04

PHOENIX — Changing the way we think about food, not just as fuel but to fight illness and disease. That's the focus of a growing culinary medicine program at the University of Arizona where doctors are being trained to prescribe the right meals as medicine. It's also a lesson for the students about really listening to a patient and the value of the human connection.

Created by Dr. Shad Marvasti, the goal is to produce a new kind of doctor where nutrition is no longer just a specialty, it's as integral as taking a patient's pulse.

"We're redesigning medical education at the core to blend in nutrition, which is basically a partnership between chefs and medical scientists," said Dr. Shad who points out the number one risk factor for premature disease and death for the past 20 years is related to a person’s diet.

"Food really is medicine and good food can really heal us, treat, prevent and reverse the diseases of our time," Dr. Shad Marvasti said.

To help illustrate the message, the program partnered with the Art in Medicine Program at the College which helps design activity placemats that lists superfoods, how they help with healing, and recipe suggestions.

The placemats were originally created with brain games and puzzles by the director of the Suntree Adult Day Center, in Phoenix, to help seniors stay engaged with their family, friends, and care partners. They're so effective 17,000 activity placemats have been distributed to meal delivery programs, senior centers, and assisted living facilities here in Arizona and 15 other states.

The vehicle to deliver it all is the Valley-based meal delivery program The Joy Bus, a natural partnership.

Founder Jennifer Caraway created the meal delivery program and diner for homebound cancer patients when her own friend was diagnosed with cancer. Hundreds of meals later, she has seen firsthand the power of food.

"We truly believe and have been advocating for a decade that food is medicine." Caraway said, "We see it every day, the benefit that real food has on people."

Joy Bus volunteers are now taking UA med students with them on deliveries, helping make introductions and connections with the patients, and opening the door for the students to start the conversation about the placemats and benefits of the meals they're receiving.