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Cooking classes offer cancer patients a different type of support

Barbara Edwards is a cancer survivor who recently discovered a renewed passion for cooking.

“I’ve been coming to this class for two years,” Barbara said. “I now cook two-to-three times a week, share the class’ recipes on Facebook and with my non-profit group and my family always requests that I make certain dishes.”

Barbara, who is on her third year of survivorship, said it started with one class at the Virginia R. Cvetko Patient Education and Support Center and she was hooked.

There’s nothing like this offered anywhere else.

Making these healthy changes is hard enough, but a cancer diagnosis can make it even more challenging. Caring for yourself or someone with cancer comes down to meeting needs, and one of our first needs as humans is nourishment. However, when ill, food can be the last thing you want because of lethargy or nausea. So, learning which foods are ideal for specific needs is paramount for a patient’s and caregiver’s health. And cooking is a great way to walk the well-being path together.

Cooking as Therapy

“Cooking (from scratch) is the single most important thing we could do as a family to improve our health and general well-being,” Michael Pollan wrote in his best-selling book Cooked.

Taking that idea to heart, the cooking classes at Baylor Scott & White Health’s Virginia R. Cvetko Patient Education and Support Center began four years ago and are led by chef Zoe Muller as well as a dietitian. They are conducted in an interactive environment where participants can freely ask questions of both experts. Because of this, the class if often attended by family members. It emphasizes meals with lots of leafy green plants, fruits and vegetables to promote positive changes on health. But they don’t forget about taste.

We want to make it fun for people in a way that they will stick with it for the long term.

“Our goal is to educate patients on how to make healthy food that tastes great,” chef Zoe said.

“Explore."

“Cooking is a therapy, it can bring families together. We’ll usually have a husband and wife come to our classes together.”

The classes focus on balance, too, said Julie Smith, RD, LD, a dietitian on the staff at Baylor Scott & White Health.

“We include seasonal ingredients and items that are easily available and affordable,” Julie said.

The Importance of Nutrition Through Cancer Treatment

Everything you eat impacts your health, and for cancer patients, nutrition is of upmost importance.

“Depending on the type of cancer or treatment regimen, many patients lose weight during treatment, much of which can come from valuable muscle mass,” Julie said. “It is important for their overall health and quality of life to rebuild that muscle, and a balanced diet can help with that.”

And it’s through a healthy diet that cancer patients and survivors can rebuild their lives.

Cooking is a therapy, it can bring families together.

“It can bring a sense of normalcy back to their lives, while at the same time allowing them to feel more in control of their future health,” Julie said. “By following a healthy diet, cancer survivors, for example, can help to manage or reduce inflammation that may have been caused by their treatments. By incorporating fruits and vegetables, along with other plant-based foods, they will get antioxidants that help reduce damage from their treatments and can help protect future cells from damage that can lead to a cancer recurrence.”

Topical Cooking Classes The Whole Family Can Enjoy

The cooking classes are offered twice a month.

“For the future, we will be doing one class a month on general wellness/chronic disease prevention, and then one class a month on a specific cancer,” Julie said. “For this second class, we will focus on prevention, as well as recipes to boost nutrition throughout treatment and dietary modifications that may be necessary. For example, we might do a farmer’s market fresh class for spring produce and then a class for national colorectal cancer month.”

One recent class, for instance, featured two dishes from the MIND diet, which is known for its benefits in improving brain health.

“We can’t forget about the health of our bodies above our shoulders,” Julie told class attendees.

Other examples of past classes include foods to boost gut health, balancing carbs, low-sugar recipes, healthy holidays and recipe makeovers.

Three Focus Areas

Cooking class participants learn three important things during the demonstrations.

  1. Nutrition – “We focus on an overall healthy, anti-inflammatory, mostly plant-based diet,” Julie said. “Patients learn the nutrition facts behind the ingredients we use and how this can impact their health. We teach them how to choose high-quality ingredients, while at the same time reducing sugar and processed foods. Our goal is to reduce the risk of all chronic disease as much as we can with diet and lifestyle changes, so we focus on various disease states for overall wellness, including heart disease, diabetes, weight management, etc.”
  2. Cooking methods – “Chef Zoe does a wonderful job of teaching cooking techniques, particularly with regards to food preparation, like slicing, dicing, chopping, etc.,” Julie said. “She gives tips that can help save time in the kitchen. She also educates on various substitutions that can be made to save money, time and to improve the taste of the dish. Patients learn how to be flexible and creative in the kitchen and how to use what they have on hand.”
  3. Modifications specific to cancer and treatment-related side effects – “We educate patients on specific foods they should emphasize or avoid based on their specific cancer or treatment regimen,” Julie said. “We also teach patients how to modify their recipe to make it higher or lower fiber, to make it easier to chew or swallow if they have issues with that, how to add flavor if they are having taste changes, etc.”

Fun and Enjoyment

The cooking classes aim to bring back the enjoyment of cooking and eating.

“We want to make it fun for people in a way that they will stick with it for the long term,” Julie said. “Your diet could be the perfect, optimal diet, but if it causes you more stress or is not enjoyable, then you are not getting the full benefit from it.”

Some cancer patients, too, may experience a range of symptoms that take away the enjoyment of food.

“They may have trouble swallowing or chewing, they could have a sore mouth, or they may have gastrointestinal side effects such as nausea and vomiting, diarrhea or constipation,” Julie said. “This can impact how they view food or whether they want to or are able to eat at all. We do our best to provide modifications to help them to eat and to help food taste good again.”

Finally, Julie points out, coming to the class itself can be a break or escape from going to appointments or difficult treatments or procedures.

“Many of our attendees really enjoy coming to the classes in person because of the interaction with the other attendees, the dietitian and the chef,” Julie said.

Building Relationships

For Barbara, the cooking classes have done wonders for her diet and have helped her build confidence. She looks forward to meeting new people who attend and furthering the friendships she’s already made.

“We feel like we’re in this together, we’re all learning to eat healthier without dieting,” Barbara said. “I’m going to be 61 on my next birthday. I feel good.”

The Cvetko cooking classes are also unique to the area.

“I was at another hospital the other day, and I was telling them about the cooking classes,” Barbara said. “There’s nothing like this offered anywhere else.”

Friends. Family. And food.

What else can you ask for?

“It’s about building beautiful relationships,” chef Zoe said.

About the author

Jason Hensel
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Jason Hensel is a Dallas-based freelance writer.

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Cooking classes offer cancer patients a different type of support