With a Stethoscope and a Spatula

Oct. 6, 2020

By SHARON GELBACH

The festivals of Sukkot, Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret are the pinnacle of the High Holidays, celebrating the gathering in of the harvest. But does the more-than-weeklong feasting with family and friends mean that we must resign ourselves to excess weight?

“Not at all,” pronounced Dr. Rani Polak, founding director of both the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard University’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and of the Center of Lifestyle Medicine at Sheba Medical Center in Israel.

Dr. Rani Polak
Dr. Rani Polak

From his work teaching the little-known science of culinary medicine in Israel and the United States, Polak and his team have observed that once people learn not only what constitutes a healthy diet and how to acquire sustainable skills and techniques, “they can enjoy all the traditional foods while staying within the rubric of a healthy lifestyle and optimal weight.”

Polak is not your run-of-the-mill doctor. In the middle of his medical training, frustrated by the lack of direct connection with patients, he took a year off and traveled to Australia. There, he was able to pursue his passion for gourmet cooking, and completed a professional chef’s course at the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school.

In a seminal “aha” moment, it occurred to him that he could integrate his love of cooking with his medical knowledge to help promote good health – an understanding that led him back to medical school to complete his training, and subsequently, to a fellowship at Harvard.

Polak described what his Culinary Healthcare Education Fundamentals (CHEF) coaching program offers beyond information provided by a dietitian.

“Until very recently, the medical profession was focused mainly on knowledge – what constitutes healthy foods,” he explained. “A dietitian will tell you what your plate must look like, but not how to apply that knowledge.

“Look,” he continued, “Western civilization has access to the greatest abundance of food in the history of mankind, not to mention information and technology. And yet, obesity and diabetes have reached epidemic proportions, and we’re also seeing a steady rise in cancers and heart disease, conditions which can be prevented with lifestyle modifications, including proper nutrition. Clearly, there is a gap between what we know and what we do.”

Polak’s work addresses that gap through coaching that takes into account individual needs, habits and preferences. Obstacles are identified and skills are taught to reinforce constructive behaviour.

He and his team are currently in the midst of a four-year study researching the effects of home cooking on weight loss — all the more relevant these days given the newly aroused interest in cooking spurred by COVID lockdowns and restaurant closures.

Even more presciently, the team employed telemedicine (“We used Zoom long before anyone heard of the coronavirus,” Polak said) for cooking classes.

“When we started with telemedicine, I was skeptical. I’m not only a physician; I’m also a chef. I like to touch food, to taste it. Initially, we thought of it as a way of reducing costs and improving accessibility for people who lived far away. With time, however, we made an amazing discovery that was born out scientifically: enabling participants to learn and practice the skills in their home environment, using their own utensils and appliances, proved far more effective.

“Of course, it doesn’t have to be ‘either or.’ With our hybrid programs, we bring participants to a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen for the opening session. That way, we get to know one another and have a chance to socialize. Then, we continue with Zoom meetings, where we all cook together.”

Polak noted that the Mediterranean diet has been proven to have the highest adherence rate over time, and it’s the one used in his team’s study.

Still, he’s wary of a one-size-fits-all approach.

“I work together with other departments at Sheba, and sometimes patients are sent to me with doctors’ recommendations for a different diet, such as one low in carbs.

“Overall, though, I’ve found that when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle in the long term, behavioral techniques are what will make it or break it.”

He believes that one of the most important behavioral skills to acquire is time management.

“Home cooking is by definition more time-consuming than buying ready-made or processed food, and of course, time is a rare commodity in our society. One important tip I teach is to cook in bulk, as simple as it sounds. Sometimes, that can mean just one ingredient; for example, instead of cooking a cup of legumes, cook the whole package, and freeze the rest as a shortcut for the next time. Your freezer is an important asset.”

Polak won’t discourage those who insist on their favourite traditional foods, even those that are high in fat and sugar.

“It really depends on the individual and how strict he decides to be. But there is no evidence-based study indicating that eating those foods very occasionally is harmful to health. Even the Mediterranean diet allows for some wiggle room. So, I’d say moderation is key.”


Sharon Gelbach grew up in Toronto, studied journalism at Carleton University, and moved to Israel in 1982. She lives in the Jerusalem area with her family. A writer, editor and translator, among her many projects are writing PR content for the Sheba Medical Center.