Yale School of Medicine’s Nate Wood On The Power of Food as Medicine

    An Interview With Wanda Malhotra

    Nuts are often overlooked when it comes to powerhouse foods for health. Not only are they good for your heart because of their high content of unsaturated fats, but they’re also good for your brain. There is a specific diet that has been developed and studied for the prevention of dementia called the MIND diet. It’s kind of like a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which are well-known and well-studied for reducing heart disease and blood pressure. The MIND diet includes eating five or more servings of nuts per week. Walnuts are extra healthy because they contain a lot of omega-3s, which are an especially healthy type of unsaturated fat.


    In an era dominated by pharmaceutical solutions, there is a rising consciousness about the incredible healing and preventive powers of food. As the age-old saying goes, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” But how does this translate in today’s world? Can we really use nutrition as a potent tool against sickness and disease? How does one curate a diet that supports health, longevity, and wellness? In this series, we are talking to nutritionists, dietitians, medical professionals, holistic health experts, and anyone with authoritative knowledge on the subject. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Nate Wood, MD, Chef.

    Dr. Nate Wood is an internal medicine physician, trained chef, and culinary medicine educator and researcher at the Yale School of Medicine, where he also teaches nutrition. He has dedicated his career to bridging the gap between doctors and chefs, firmly believing that what we eat can be simultaneously healthy and delicious. His work couples his passion for education with a unique combination of medical, culinary, and media experience to empower others to enjoy food in a healthy way.


    Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

    Sure! I was born and raised on the outskirts of a small city in Michigan called Muskegon. Growing up, my family always really had a passion for food. Both of my grandfathers had been cooks — one in the Army and one in a hospital. My grandmothers passed down favorite recipes through the generations, and my mom and dad each took turns making dinner for my siblings and me over the years. (Favorites include dad’s beef roast and mom’s chicken chili.) We always had a big garden in the backyard, where we’d grow watermelon, corn, beans, squash, peas … you name it. Both sets of grandparents also had gardens, which kept us stocked with tomatoes for sandwiches, strawberries for shortcake, and grapes for freshly squeezed juice. Every year, we stalked the farmer’s market for local Red Haven peaches in August and would go apple-picking for our homemade applesauce (jolted with Red Hots candy) in September. We clearly liked food!

    In all of this, however, there was always an understanding that food was not only delicious. Food was also tightly connected to our health. Of course we enjoyed salty snacks and tasty desserts, but in moderation, and only if we had eaten our vegetables first. We weren’t scared of carbs, but our bread was whole-wheat. (“The whiter the bread, the quicker you’re dead,” my grandfather would brusquely assert — eek!) If we were hungry after school, there was always fruit, yogurt, and carrots in the fridge, mom would remind us.

    With this upbringing and a love for my science classes in school, it’s no wonder I grew up to be both a doctor and a chef.

    What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

    I wish it weren’t this cliché, but here’s the truth. I broke my leg playing soccer in eighth grade. Up until that point, I had planned on becoming a civil engineer to design roller coasters. As I was laid up all summer asking, “God, why me?” (you can picture how pathetic this was), I started to take a greater interest in my doctors’ work. I felt a pull toward medicine, and I never looked back!

    That same summer, lying on the couch with a broken leg, I had a lot of time on my hands. In addition to having an existential career crisis at the ripe old age of 13, I developed a deep, deep interest in the television show 30-Minute Meals with Rachael Ray. I watched hundreds of hours. When I could walk again, I began cooking with fervor. My family soon became subject to a barrage of new recipes, my poor mother scouring the local grocery store every week to fulfill my requests for then-foreign ingredients like polenta, Calabrian chiles, and poblano peppers. For years, the kitchen and our family dinner table were my laboratories for exploration.

    When I went off to college, I became a resident advisor. This meant I had to live in the dorms, so I didn’t have access to a kitchen. I began working as the food critic for my college newspaper. Eating out and writing this biweekly column served as my only culinary outlets. But once I got to medical school, I finally had my own kitchen. I would attend classes and study the human body by day and cook and learn about food by night.

    Before long, however, it became obvious to me that I’d need to find a way to combine my love for food with my love for medicine if I was going to find a fulfilling career. In my late-night researching (read: existential career crisis #2), I discovered a burgeoning field of medicine called “culinary medicine.” Culinary medicine teaches patients, medical trainees, and healthcare professionals the basics of nutrition using hands-on cooking to help prevent and treat diet-related disease. I knew immediately that this was the path for me. I took a pause from medical school to jet off to culinary school to bolster my skills. When I returned to medical school, I began teaching culinary medicine, and I haven’t stopped since!

    It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

    Oh, I have the perfect answer for this one. When I was in culinary school, I was a guest on The Dr. Oz Show. I had been invited to make an omelet and talk about its health benefits. The producers dressed me up in scrubs and a very, very tall chef’s toque, which was already funny. I got onto set, turned the burner on, and got my eggs and veggies into the pan. Less than a minute later, the producers asked me, “You ready to roll?” I said, “No, the omelet won’t be ready to flip!” They shrugged and replied with something to the effect of, “Oh well! We’re rolling anyway!”

    The segment started. I pushed the mixture around the pan a bit. I waxed poetic about the protein in the eggs and something about the fiber or phytonutrients in the vegetables. The time had come for me to flip the omelet. As I had feared, it was not ready, but I had no choice. When I tried to give it a flip, the omelet broke into pieces and flopped over onto itself — a miserable failure! It was so hysterically bad that we just had to laugh about it. There wasn’t time for a retake. Now, whenever I do cooking segments, I make sure to bring my own food and props so that everything is ready when the cameras roll!

    You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

    Be a good listener.

    There have been lots of times where I’ve be in clinic and patients have dropped subtle little hints about things they’ve wanted to talk about but were too scared or embarrassed to bring up. In these instances, if I was distracted, disinterested, or otherwise being a bad listener, I could have missed a diagnosis of heart disease, food insecurity, or depression. Be curious. Show interest. Ask questions. Listen intently. You can learn something from everyone — tune in so you don’t miss it!

    Be gritty.

    The importance of grit cannot be understated. Six months into my internal medicine residency, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. For years, I worked long hours dealing with overwhelming death and disease in the clinic, hospital wards, and ICU. I thought many times about giving up. While this was a trying period of my life, others go through much worse. In one way or another, everyone gets knocked down in life. Finding it in yourself to get back up and continue on is paramount to long-term success.

    Be passionate.

    Where do you find your “flow”? In what projects do you get easily engrossed, where time passes quickly and you aren’t constantly checking your phone? For me, it’s when I’m cooking in my apartment or teaching residents and medical students. Develop your knowledge and skills in your passions. Hold yourself to high standards in your passion work. Find a way to employ these passions to help other people, and you’ll be well on your way to success.

    What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

    Most of my work at the moment is focused on collaborating with dietitians to develop and test novel culinary medicine curricula for primary care residents. We focus on teaching our learners to apply nutrition, social determinants of health, patient communication, and culinary skills to the prevention and management of diet-related diseases. We’re specifically focused on heart disease, obesity, eating disorders, diabetes, and cancer. The most exciting part is that we have a beautiful teaching kitchen in which to pilot these curricula! I hope the training equips physicians to better manage the health of their patients by incorporating nutrition education and dietitian referrals into their primary care practices.

    OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview about cultivating wellness through proper nutrition and diet. To begin, can you tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority on the topic of nutrition?

    I was lucky to attend a medical school that had a robust nutrition curriculum, which is actually much rarer than you might imagine. Registered dietitians are the ultimate experts on nutrition. For this reason, I collaborate frequently with registered dietitians and have learned a lot from them in our work together. As part of my master’s program, I’ve completed additional coursework in nutrition epidemiology, food and nutrition policy, and lifestyle interventions for chronic disease prevention at the Yale School of Public Health. I am now an instructor of medicine and teach nutrition and culinary medicine to medical students, physician associate students, and resident physicians at the Yale School of Medicine. My research focuses on the evaluation of these pedagogical methods.

    We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

    Great question. Time is certainly one of the biggest barriers: time to grocery shop, time to cook, time to eat, time to do dishes … The rising cost of fresh produce and other healthy foods — especially compared to shelf-stable, calorie-dense, ultra-processed foods — is another. Difficulty with accessing healthy foods (“nutrition insecurity”) or enough food period (food insecurity) are systemic barriers that are increasingly being recognized. I think we’re also addicted to unhealthy foods. They taste so good! Food scientists actively work to make packaged foods irresistible by developing novel concoctions of fat, sugar, and salt that keep us coming back for more, whether we want to or not. And finally, I think a lack of culinary skills is a contributing factor. Although we may know how to eat healthily, it’s hard to actually make it happen if we don’t feel confident and comfortable in the kitchen.

    From your professional perspective, do you believe that nutrition plays a pivotal role in supporting the body’s natural healing processes and overall well-being, particularly in cases of chronic diseases? We’re interested in hearing your insights on the connection between a holistic approach to diet and its benefits for individuals facing health challenges.

    What we eat directly impacts how we feel and how our body functions. Certainly, we can consume too much of some things — like saturated fat, sugar, refined grains, alcohol, processed meat — and our health will be negatively impacted. We know that obesity, fatty liver disease, heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer, for instance, are greatly affected by what we eat.

    But while food can be a problem, it can also be a solution. Switching from refined grains to whole grains could improve your diabetes. Switching from butter to olive oil could lower your cholesterol and risk of heart attacks and strokes. Eating more fruits and vegetables could protect you from developing obesity and cancer. Eating more nuts could protect your brain and help stave off dementia. A holistic approach to diet focuses on all of these health-promoting foods. Eating a plant-forward diet comprised of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds throughout your lifespan decreases your risk of developing many chronic diseases and can help you live longer. And if you already have a chronic disease, there’s a good chance that improving your diet could help manage it!

    Based on your research or experience could you share with us five examples of foods or dietary patterns that have demonstrated remarkable potential in preventing, reducing, or managing specific health conditions? If you can, it would be insightful if you could provide real-life examples of their curative properties.

    1 . Beans (and other legumes) for longevity

    Many people are familiar with the so-called “Blue Zones.” These seemingly disparate areas of the world — Greece, Italy, Japan, Costa Rica, and even California — boast populations that live to be 100 years of age at exceptionally high rates. Why? As it turns out, these populations have a few core things in common, one of the biggest being that they eat a plant-forward diet with lots of legumes. Legumes like beans, peanuts, lentils, and peas are high in protein and fiber and low in fat. The protein helps your body build and maintain muscle. The fiber helps keep you full and regular. Legumes are also low in fat, and they can help reduce your cholesterol, which is good for your heart. No wonder they promote longevity!

    2 . Walnuts (and other nuts and seeds) for brain health

    Nuts are often overlooked when it comes to powerhouse foods for health. Not only are they good for your heart because of their high content of unsaturated fats, but they’re also good for your brain. There is a specific diet that has been developed and studied for the prevention of dementia called the MIND diet. It’s kind of like a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which are well-known and well-studied for reducing heart disease and blood pressure. The MIND diet includes eating five or more servings of nuts per week. Walnuts are extra healthy because they contain a lot of omega-3s, which are an especially healthy type of unsaturated fat.

    3 . Oatmeal (and other whole grains) for heart health

    Oatmeal is not only delicious and easy to prepare, it’s also great for your health! Oatmeal and other whole grains have been repeatedly linked to lower rates of heart disease in the medical literature. This is probably due to the fact that they contain more fiber, healthy fats, and micronutrients and spike your blood sugar less than refined grains. Oats in particular contain a special type of fiber called soluble fiber that helps lower your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which can also reduce your risk of heart disease. But be careful: steer clear of the flavored packets of oatmeal that have tons of added sugar. Instead, buy the unflavored kind and add your own fruit, nuts, spices, and a touch of sweetness at home for a healthier alternative.

    4 . Sweet potatoes (and other vegetables) for weight management

    Everyone knows that vegetables are good for us … but why? One of the biggest reasons is that they have a lot of fiber and not a lot of calories. This means that they do a good job of filling us up without filling us up with a lot of calories. This can help prevent the development of overweight and obesity and their associated medical conditions. In addition, vegetables contain a lot of phytonutrients, which are plant chemicals that help support our health and prevent disease. Sweet potatoes in particular are high in fiber, low in calories, and jam-packed with phytonutrients like beta-carotene. Like carrots, you may have heard that sweet potatoes are good for your eyes, and this is why!

    5 . Berries (and other fruits) for everything

    Berries are good for longevity, brain health, heart health, weight management, and the list goes on. In fact, it might be easier to ask, “What aren’t berries good for?” Even though they’re a type of fruit, berries have a relatively low amount of sugar and a high amount of fiber, which helps to counteract the sugar. Another way to say this is that berries have a low glycemic index, meaning they don’t spike your blood sugar as much as some other fruits do. And it’s not just berries, but all whole fruits that contain fiber. For this reason, whole fruits are safe to enjoy in moderation, even if you have a condition like diabetes. Like sweet potatoes and other vegetables, berries and other fruits also contain a lot of phytonutrients and antioxidants (which help give them their beautiful color). And they taste so good!

    Do experts generally agree that merely choosing healthy foods isn’t sufficient, but that understanding how to consume them is key to unlocking their full health benefits? (For example, skins on/off, or cooked/raw, or whole grain/refined grain) Could you provide advice on how to approach this and sidestep common errors or misconceptions?

    I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily true. Choosing healthy foods is most important. Figuring out specific ways to prepare them to optimize their health benefits is less important, but still a good idea. For instance, chicken skin is composed mostly of saturated fat, so discarding it before cooking can save a lot of calories and spare you from some of that artery-clogging fat. The “skin” of a sweet potato, however, has lots of beneficial nutrients and fiber, so eating that is a good idea.

    Now let’s talk about whether vegetables are better to eat cooked or raw. When you cook vegetables, you do “kill” some of the vitamins in the vegetables, most notably vitamin C. However, the cooking process simultaneously makes other vitamins and minerals easier for the body to absorb. It can also make fiber-rich foods, like kale, easier to digest. Both raw and cooked versions are nutritious, and each has its benefits over the other. For this reason, it’s best to eat your vegetables in a variety of preparations — some raw and some cooked. This is an example of how choosing healthy foods can be more important than focusing on how to consume them.

    With the recent prominence of nutrition’s integration into healthcare, what’s your perspective on the collaborative approach between medical professionals, health coaches, and nutrition experts when it comes to delivering holistic patient care? Can you please explain?

    Yes, it’s so important. There’s a new movement in medicine and public health known as “Food is Medicine” (FIM). To date, the power of FIM has been underrecognized and underutilized, but that’s about to change. Our medical system is beginning to acknowledge that food can be used to prevent and treat many of our chronic diseases here in the United States, and this will require collaboration among healthcare professionals. We need to work together as a team.

    In the future, I think multidisciplinary clinics practicing lifestyle medicine, FIM, and culinary medicine will be ubiquitous. In order to best provide holistic care, patients should have access to a team of professionals who work together to manage their health. Of course they will continue to see physicians and other clinicians who will develop their treatment plans, but they should also see registered dietitians for medical nutrition therapy. They should have access to psychologists and other mental health professionals for cognitive behavioral therapy for enacting positive lifestyle changes. They should see physical therapists or exercise physiologists for physical activity training and prescriptions. They should work with a team of physicians, chefs, and registered dietitians in teaching kitchens to learn culinary medicine. And all of these endeavors should be supported by frequent check-ins with a health coach. In this way, nutrition and other aspects of lifestyle medicine can be integrated into routine patient care to best support patients’ health. I think this is the future of healthcare that we’re beginning to see.

    It’s been suggested that using ‘food as medicine’ has the potential to reduce healthcare costs by preventing disease severity. However, there’s concern about the affordability of healthier food options. What solutions do you believe could make nutritious choices accessible to everyone, ensuring that food truly becomes a form of medicine for all?

    That’s a big question. For one, the government is already subsidizing certain foods. I’m not sure most people know that. But what foods is our government subsidizing? Corn and soybeans. These crops are used to make high-fructose corn syrup and soybean oil, which then end up in some of our most unhealthy foods on the supermarket shelves. This could certainly be changed such that our government subsidizes healthier produce options instead, making them more accessible to everyone.

    As insurance companies realize the power of Food is Medicine (FIM), I think they will more readily cover services such as produce and grocery prescription programs and medically tailored meals. This will help to reduce food insecurity and increase nutrition security for many Americans.

    Systemically, we need to continue expanding and investing in our nation’s nutrition assistance programs to make sure our citizens not only have enough food, but that they have enough nutritious food. And even more broadly, we need economic growth, strengthened unions, and governmental regulation to ensure people have access to jobs that pay well enough for them to afford healthy groceries for their families.

    Everyone’s body is unique, and what works for one might not work for another. How does one navigate the vast array of nutritional advice available today to curate a diet tailored to individual needs, ensuring health and longevity?

    It’s actually not as complicated as people think. I always like to say that eating healthy is not easy, but it is simple. Everyone, regardless of body type, should focus on eating a plant-forward diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. This is easily adaptable to individuals’ tastes, cultures, and traditions. Not everyone needs to eat a Mediterranean diet. But everyone should aim to eat as many unprocessed or minimally processed plants as they can — whichever plants they enjoy.

    Beyond this simple advice, patients should consider specific dietary restrictions that they may have based on their chronic diseases, such as IBS or chronic kidney disease. I would encourage them to talk to their doctor and ask for a referral to a dietitian. Folks should also pay attention to how different foods make them feel, which is a key aspect of a new movement called “intuitive eating.” Maybe your body just doesn’t handle raw kale very well. (I know mine doesn’t!) That’s okay — try raw spinach instead, or try cooking your kale first. Or maybe you don’t like any dark greens. Try “hiding” them in your morning smoothie or in your pasta at dinner. Have fun experimenting and finding ways to take broadly applicable nutrition advice and make it practical for you and your family based on your bodies’ specific needs.

    As our understanding of the intricate link between food and health continues to evolve, we’re curious to know which emerging trends or breakthroughs in nutritional science excite you the most. How do you envision these advancements shaping the future of healthcare?

    I may be biased, but I’m most excited by the recent growth of culinary medicine. Teaching kitchens are cropping up seemingly everywhere, and culinary medicine practices are really proliferating. This is because the research is continuing to show that these classes are both effective and fun. There’s something really special about getting folks together to cook and learn about nutrition in a way that simultaneously builds community and supports their health and well-being.

    In that same vein, I’d like to dispel a common myth. Nutrition experts aren’t sitting around racking their brains wondering, “What’s the best diet?” and, “What should people eat?” Broadly speaking, we already know. Instead, we’re now focused on how to make it practical for people to apply that nutrition knowledge to their daily lives. Said another way — “We know what a healthy diet looks like. Now how do we make it happen?” That’s the problem that everyone’s working on right now, and I think culinary medicine will be a big part of the solution that will help shape the future of healthcare.

    How can we better educate the public about the medicinal properties of food, and what role do professionals like you play in this educational journey?

    That’s a great question. I definitely feel a professional obligation to use my training to educate the public about Food is Medicine (FIM) and think other experts should do the same. I see a lot of social media influencers who are charismatic and attractive but have no professional training out there attempting to educate the public about nutrition. This is a huge issue. It’s scary. Professionals need to step into the ring to crowd out the misinformation. This means becoming active on social media, doing interviews like these, speaking on television, being guests on podcasts, etc. In order to do this effectively, however, institutions need to invest in training their professionals to engage with the media and to hire content creators to collaborate with them. The media, for its part, should take care when seeking out experts to select those with professional credentials and legitimate expertise, not just those who have the most followers on social media. And really, we need to incorporate more nutrition education into all levels of training for both the general public and healthcare professionals: K-12, undergraduate studies, medical/graduate school, post-graduate training, and beyond.

    How can our readers further follow your work online?

    I’m active on Instagram, X, and LinkedIn (@drchefnate) and try my best to keep my website (drnatewood.com) updated!

    Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

    My pleasure. And same to you! Thanks for covering this super important topic.

    Photo Credit:

    Mari Sabra Photography

    @marisabraphotography


    About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com .

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    • Wanda Malhotra

      Lifestyle Journalist, Wellness Entrepreneur

      Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com.

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