Mar 13
March 13, 2014

Dr. David Eisenberg

Executive Vice President for Health Research and Education, Samueli Institute

The Healthy Eating Halo Effect


America’s obesity crisis is well-documented, as well its impact on the overall health of the nation through an increase in hypertension, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and stroke. While many are engaged in important efforts to help alleviate the obesity epidemic by encouraging changes in public behavior and educating Americans on how to eat better and exercise more, some colleagues and I have decided to focus our efforts on a different population: doctors and other health care professionals.

Previous studies have shown that doctors who practice healthy behaviors such as exercising, wearing a seatbelt or not smoking, are more likely to advise their patients to do the same. Could this healthy halo effect from physician to patient also include making healthier food choices? A study released February, 2013 in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that might be the case.

Several years ago colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health and I partnered with the Culinary Institute of America to create Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives – a four-day conference focused on the state of the science in nutrition coupled with hands-on cooking demonstrations as well as useful information regarding exercise prescription, mindfulness training and behavioral optimization.

At “Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives” health care professionals learn to identify healthy as well as less healthy carbohydrates, fats and proteins; practice performing a nutritional assessment, and learn when to refer to a registered dietitian. Conference attendees also focus on eating healthy on a budget and learn to prepare healthy, delicious meals for less than $3 per person.

They are also introduced to strategies whereby patients are given a written “exercise prescription,” introduced to mindfulness instruction and, when relevant, referred to a trained health coach in an effort to replace suboptimal self- care practices with healthier alternatives.  Since much of the conference focuses on the “translation” of decades of nutrition science in particular, we have sought to showcase the fact that making healthier, yet “craveably delicious” foods can be fast, affordable, easy and fun for health care professionals and their patients.  Our motto is: “See one. Taste one. Make one. Teach one.”

Through follow-up surveys with participants we found that physicians who attended Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives reported significant changes in frequency of cooking their own meals, personal consumption of healthier food choices, greater awareness of their caloric consumption, and increased ability to assess a patient’s nutritional status and advise on nutrition and lifestyle habits. Moreover, as predicted, physicians who ate more healthy diets were more apt to counsel their patients on healthier eating and lifestyle habits.

The study is the result of a relatively small, self-reported survey, but the results are encouraging. Translating nutrition and behavioral science into healthy, delicious, and easy to prepare dishes for health care professionals has a direct impact on their ability to instruct patients on the most basic element of self-care: eating right. 

In January 2014, Dr. David Eisenberg spoke at the Clinton Foundation's Clinton Health Matters Employee Effectiveness and Well-Being Forum where he discussed the need for comprehensive employee well-being programs. The Samueli Institute and the Clinton Health Matters Initiative work together to promote the intersection of nutrition and health across sectors, with a focus on employee well-being by providing companies with health and wellness education tools and by showcasing successful solutions.