You wonder if you’ve stumbled into the wrong place. This is a college campus, right?
If this were any other day, a bowl of Alacia Strafford’s banana pudding — 27 grams of sugar per 2/3 cup — could have put you in a diabetic coma. But when cooking for this potluck lunch hosted by Georgetown University medical school professor and biochemist Thomas Sherman, the 25-year-old aspiring pediatrician replaced most of the fat and sugar with low-fat instant banana pudding, fat-free milk, sugar-free vanilla wafers and plain low-fat yogurt.
How’s it taste?
“It’s actually pretty good,” Strafford says. “It tastes like it wasn’t made with low-calorie stuff.”
Sherman, a molecular neuroendocrinologist and self-professed lover of metabolism, noticed that his medical students, notorious for their poor eating habits, sat up in class when his biochemistry lectures incorporated a more practical discussion of how the body responds to food. “It’s one thing to teach these fairly intricate pathways of metabolism and what happens to a protein when it gets digested and broken into little pieces, and how’s the energy extracted from it. I think it’s fascinating, but students think of it as memorization,” Sherman says.
“But what I would notice is that when I would relate these pathways to actual food — how does your body adapt to overfeeding or breastfeeding or exercise or alcoholism ... then they were paying attention in a way that they never did before,” continues Sherman, who has taught at Georgetown for 16 years.
So, he set out to give them more of what they wanted and, along the way, spread his belief that although medical interventions are sometimes necessary, many of the things that are killing us can be thwarted with better nutrition.
As a member of a panel tasked with reshaping the first-year medical curriculum, Sherman proposed a personal nutrition course to the university’s Committee on Medical Education in spring 2004. But it would take four years for Sherman and the committee to reach a compromise: He could teach personal nutrition if students also received traditional clinical nutrition instruction that answers questions such as what to feed a comatose patient or a cancer patient after chemotherapy. Sherman formed a partnership with the University of North Carolina to provide the clinical portion online.
Stephen Ray Mitchell, dean for medical education and a pediatrician, acknowledges that proposing new things to the committee is not easy. “They are a conservative group who feel protective of the curricular quality,” he says. He said the school previously taught students about nutritional assessments of patients, “but Tom has made this come alive since he took over leadership, by personalizing it in such an exciting way.”