Why This Doctor Dropped Everything to Go to Culinary School

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Photo courtesy of Julia Nordgren

Julia Nordgren isn’t someone who says “I can’t” very often. When the former English major decided to become a doctor several years after college graduation — despite not having taken any pre-med courses — Nordgren toiled in a post-baccalaureate program before attending Dartmouth Medical School at age 25. And when, as a pediatrician in her early 30s, she decided to go to culinary school, she just did it — even though it meant moving across the country from her husband and two young children for nine months.

“I’ve never been risk-averse,” Nordgren told us by way of explanation. “Not much holds me back from new experiences.”

But there’s a method to the madness. Before attending culinary school, Nordgren was frustrated with how the medical field approached healthy eating with patients. “I felt discouraged that our system wasn’t able to well handle these things, and I felt we were really missing a big window of time,” she said. Newborns see a doctor frequently and conversations with parents often revolve around nutrition, Nordgren explained, but by the time those children turn 2, they’re coming in yearly.

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Nordgren’s farro salad with skillet-roasted tomatoes.

"That’s when families are really laying down habits,” she said. “And that’s where convenience food comes in and companies really advertise to kids. There’s such a push to get kids interested in these processed and high-sugar foods.” 

And they have a frightening effect on kids. Overweight children have a myriad of health problems, Nordgren told us. She ticked off just a few: sleep issues, asthma, metabolic problems, the development of early markers of heart disease and high cholesterol. Some doctors treat these issues with various medications, which although warranted in some circumstances, Nordgren cautions that they sometimes simply treat the symptom and not the root problem. “It’s one of the things that’s so easy to correct with diet,” she said.

Nordgren’s culinary degree enables her to explain how diet impacts health in very real terms, she said. That’s key when dealing with patients for whom nutrition is new territory. She recalls one pre-diabetic patient, who at 16 was in the 95th percentile for height and weight in her age group. With Nordgren’s guidance, the young lady steered away from eating fast food meals three times a week and sugary juices and sodas. After a few months, the patient’s weight stopped accelerating — a win, in Nordgren’s mind — but she failed to shed any pounds. In the final moments of an appointment, the reason became clear.

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Spinach and roasted pear salad with walnut vinaigrette.

“She said, ‘I stopped drinking juice and soda!’ And she was so proud she was able to do it,” Nordgren recalled. “And then her mom was like, ‘We’re drinking Arizona Iced Tea instead.’” Nordgren was stunned. Neither mother nor daughter had any idea that the tea packed 40 grams of sugar per bottle.

“If they had left my office 15 minutes earlier, I would have never been able to help them,” Nordgren said. “This happened 45 minutes into the session. That’s the labor required to get a good understanding of where they are and where they can go.”

These days, Nordgren is readying to begin work in the diabetes prevention program at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in California. In addition to teaching cooking classes nearby — in the past, Nordgren taught classes at the Culinary Institute of America — Nordgren maintains a personal health and diet practice and consults with companies on how to keep their workforces healthy. She’s also a spokesperson for the Hass Avocado Board, promoting the use of healthy fats in cooking.

“I really believe that if we can help people cook better, eat better, and deliver that knowledge and skill in a compassionate, nonjudgmental way, that’s very empowering,” Nordgren said. “We can all improve, myself included.”

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What’s your go-to healthy recipe?