Clinical Spotlight: Swathi Rao, PA-C, & Teaching Kitchens

Young family with fresh vegetables in kitchen

Functional medicine practitioners know that many patients do not have optimal nutrition,1 are experiencing record levels of chronic disease,2 and are likely being treated with pharmaceuticals despite the availability of other, less potentially harmful but highly effective options.2,3 What are some innovative ways to teach patients about nutrition? Not all patients are comfortable with healthy meal preparation, and we know that practitioners’ recommendations have a strong influence on individual health behaviors.4

Functional medicine certified clinician Swathi Rao, PA-C, incorporates teaching kitchens into her patients’ educational experience. “I’ve always believed that food should come first; food should always be our first medicine,” says Ms. Rao.

For the last 15 years, I’ve really been focused on how to actually get people to change their diet—not just for an elimination diet, not just for four weeks, but for a lifetime.

Swathi Rao, PA-C

Ms. Rao explains that teaching kitchens in a clinical practice are designed to influence lifestyle change in eating behaviors, and to improve a patient’s existing condition or prevent disease onset.

In the following video, Ms. Rao discusses how a teaching kitchen has been incorporated into her functional medicine practice:

Swathi Rao, PA-C, practices at Be Well Family Care in Carmel, IN

Poor nutrition is linked to a variety of chronic conditions, from diabetes to autoimmune diseases and beyond. However, clinicians are rarely offered even basic nutritional training in medical and osteopathic school.5 A 2011 survey found that less than half of primary care physicians track body mass index or provide nutrition education for their patients.6

Research shows that nutrition counseling by physicians does make a difference. A 2011 analysis of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that overweight and obese patients whose doctors spoke with them about their weight were twice as likely to lose at least 5% of their body mass over the following year.6

Learn more about the power of functional nutrition

Innovative approaches to weight management, cardiovascular risk reduction, and significant improvements in outcomes have been found with cooking programs, some of which also include mindfulness training, exercise, and individualized health coaching.7 In 2015, The Eating and Cooking Healthy (TEACH) Kitchen in Augusta, Georgia, was the first medical school–based nutrition/cooking education initiative to provide patients and medical students with hands-on healthy nutrition/cooking experience. Programs like TEACH Kitchen allow medical students to become familiarized with giving nutrition advice. The program found that by practicing these behaviors, medical students are more likely to counsel patients more effectively in the future.8 In 2018, a study of a vegetable-focused cooking and nutrition program for low-income parents and children showed improvements in psychosocial factors, variety, and home availability.9

Clearly, medical professionals like Ms. Rao can have a meaningful impact on improving patient health by providing opportunities for patients to develop nutrition proficiency. Educational programs like teaching kitchens can alter the healthcare trajectories of those who have already developed chronic health challenges or are at elevated risk for developing them. After all, isn’t that what the core of Functional Medicine is all about?

Learn More About Functional Medicine


  1. Wanniarachige D. Malnourished patients often unacknowledged. CMAJ. 2015;187(4):242. doi:10.1503/cmaj.109-4991
  2. Ward BW, Schiller JS, Goodman RA. Multiple chronic conditions among US adults: a 2012 update. Prev Chronic Dis. 2014;11:E62. doi:10.5888/pcd11.130389
  3. Robbins R. Big pharma’s big push to get patients to take their meds. STAT News. Published February 4, 2016. Accessed April 26, 2019.
  4. Kreuter MW, Chheda SG, Bull FC. How does physician advice influence patient behavior? Evidence for a priming effect. Arch Fam Med. 2000;9:426-433.
  5. Castillo M, Feinstein R, Tsang J, Fisher M. Basic nutrition knowledge of recent medical graduates entering a pediatric residency program. Int J Adolesc Med Health. 2016;28(4):357-361. doi:10.1515/ijamh-2015-0019
  6. Smith AW, Borowski LA, Liu B, et al. U.S. primary care physicians’ diet-, physical activity-, and weight-related care of adult patients. Am J Prev Med. 2011;41(1):33-42. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2011.03.017
  7. Eisenberg DM, Righter AC, Matthews B, Zhang W, Willet WC, Massa J. Feasibility pilot study of a teaching kitchen and self-care curriculum in a workplace setting. Am J Lifestyle Med. Published online May 23, 2017. doi:10.1177/1559827617709757
  8. Chae JH, Ansa BE, Smith SA. TEACH kitchen: a chronological review of accomplishments. J Ga Public Health Assoc. 2017;6(4):444-455. doi:10.21633/jgpha.6.408
  9. Overcash F, Ritter A, Mann T, et al. Impacts of a vegetable cooking skills program among low-income parents and children. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2018;50(8):795-802. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2017.10.016

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