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President’s Lecture Series: Can you eat your way to better health?

PLS Albin advance

As the granddaughter of farmers, Jaclyn Albin, M.D., understood that the crops her family grew in the fields of Texas would later be served at the kitchen table. The UT Southwestern Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Internal Medicine even has a photo of herself atop a tractor at age 9 to prove it.

“Many people don’t understand where their food actually comes from, or the powerful way it can impact health,” said Dr. Albin, whose grandparents grew everything from sorghum grain to black-eyed peas.

Dr. Albin, pictured at age 9 (in red hat) with her sister, Rachel, and paternal grandfather, Clyde Ray Lewis, atop a tractor on the family’s farm in Lockett, Texas. Her grandparents farmed for more than two decades, mainly producing sorghum and guar. They also grew peach, plum, and pecan trees plus blackberries, watermelon, cucumbers, tomatoes, black-eyed peas, green beans, okra, corn, and potatoes, instilling in her an early appreciation for homegrown food.

Years after learning how to grow vegetables, Dr. Albin would become a pioneer in culinary medicine – an evidence-based field that combines the expertise of physicians, registered dietitians, and chefs to help patients improve their nutrition and ease their health problems. Blending the art of farm-to-table cooking with the science of nutrition and medicine became a passion for Dr. Albin. Its impact was reinforced by her need to find alternative foods after her husband was diagnosed with celiac disease, a disorder in which gluten intake provokes a harmful immune response.

On April 11, as part of the President’s Lecture Series, Dr. Albin, a certified culinary medicine specialist, will discuss “A Delicious Antidote: The Current & Future Landscape of Food as Medicine.” The 4 p.m. lecture will take place in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium.

From teaching healthy cooking classes in the community to helping establish UT Southwestern as a nutritional leader by equipping physicians with the tools to address chronic diseases, Dr. Albin has dedicated her career to improving people’s lives through empowerment and healthier choices.

Before plant-forward diets and smoothies packed with fruit, veggies, and protein powder became popular, Dr. Albin was busy building a world where everyone could have nutritious food options. She recognized that busy families frequently lacked the time to make healthier meals and that those living in food deserts often did not have access to fresh foods, so she took the science behind healthy eating and made it real for people.

“A big part of that is helping people learn how to cook food in a way that is nourishing for their bodies,” Dr. Albin said. “We can tell people what they need to eat, but we need to get it on people’s plates, make it easy, and ensure it tastes good.”

As the mother of two tweens, Dr. Albin enjoys making nutritious meals kids will eat and enjoy. She has tested hundreds of recipes on her family and hopes to one day write a book with practical tips to make healthy food fun.

“It’s OK for kids to play with their food and experience it with all the senses as they learn to like new things over time,” she said. “Celebrate how eating a rainbow of fruits and veggies fuels us with superpowers for school, play, and life.”

But there is far more to her mission than inspiring people to eat more nutritious meals. Since 2015, when she co-founded UT Southwestern’s Culinary Medicine Program, Dr. Albin has been finding new ways to take her message to health care professionals and learners. Training medical students, residents, fellows, and colleagues in a kitchen helps expand the way the next generation thinks about preventing disease, equipping them with tools to guide their patients to better health through nutrition and lifestyle strategies.

In 2021, Dr. Albin and Milette Siler, M.B.A., RD, LD, CCMS, a UTSW registered dietitian, launched eConsults, a service that enables the Culinary Medicine team to provide written nutrition and culinary support for specific health questions. The information is delivered to a UTSW patient’s requesting health care team via electronic medical records. In 2022, they expanded Culinary Medicine services to include one-on-one, in-person nutrition consultations. During coaching consults, individuals meet with both Dr. Albin and Ms. Siler for personalized nutritional, culinary, and behavior change advice.

Culinary Medicine group medical visits launch this spring in community partner kitchens near UT Southwestern Medical Center at RedBird. Over a six-class series, participants will learn to make healthy meals and improve their relationship with food. This approach improves patient satisfaction, saves physicians time, and is reimbursable by insurance. The services are billable, based on medical conditions such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity.

“We have to get to the bottom of why people want to get healthier,” Dr. Albin said. “Is it so that their knees don’t hurt when they play on the floor with their grandkids, that they want to be able to travel, or because they don’t want a medical complication they saw in a loved one’s journey? Once we know their unique ‘why,’ that becomes their North Star.”

The hope is that by teaching families how to eat more delicious, nutritious meals, public health will improve. In the U.S., 93% of adults are not metabolically healthy (defined as having optimal cardiometabolic health based on adiposity, blood glucose, blood lipids, blood pressure, and clinical cardiovascular disease measures), according to a Journal of the American College of Cardiology study based on trends found in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

By engaging the community as partners, Dr. Albin believes it is possible to change this statistic and improve lifestyles of people across the country.

“What happens in the community and in people’s homes is really what drives health,” Dr. Albin said. “The only way to move the needle and improve health is to get in our communities and collaborate across our shared goals to change things. Giving people hope that they can reclaim their health is the best part of this work.”

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