/ Podcast / Cooking Up Wellness Through Culinary Medicine, With Olivia Thomas

Cooking Up Wellness Through Culinary Medicine, With Olivia Thomas

Encouraging clients to eat better only works if they have the resources available to make it happen. A common barrier to eating healthful is cooking. Some clients may not have the culinary skills, while others might not have the time, which can lead to pre-prepared, processed, or take-out dinners. This week, Dr Sandi speaks with Olivia Thomas about her revolutionary digital platform, Rewire Health, which helps make cooking healthy foods easier for everyone.

Olivia Thomas practices culinary medicine, which is the practice of getting people to try, practice, and cook foods that will improve their health. Rewire Health is a digital platform that helps users get hands-on experience with cooking. The platform is personalized to consider everything from food sensitivities to access and availability when offering recipe options. What’s more, Rewire teaches users how to cook through repetition, practice, and gradual progression to more difficult techniques.

Episode Highlights

  • Learn about the practice of culinary medicine.
  • What does the Rewire Health platform teach users about healthy eating?
  • How can health coaches use Rewire Health in their coaching practice?
  • Hear how personalization in recipes and cooking can help clients start eating healthier.

Meet the Guest

Olivia Thomas

Co-Founder of Rewire Health

Rewire Health

Olivia is a dietitian and for years she counseled patients and taught cooking classes to help people improve their dietary patterns. Olivia observed firsthand that recipes, counseling, and classes were burdensome to patients and ineffective in making lasting changes. However, what did work, was helping people make small changes to the meals they already know and love, through easy and simple lessons that can be practiced daily.

Olivia is a Registered Dietitian (RDN) with a master’s degree in nutrition science as well as a bachelor’s in business management and healthcare economics. She is the Director of Culinary Nutrition at one of the largest hospitals in New England and an expert in behavior change.


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Episode Transcript

Sandi: Welcome back to “Health Coach Talk.” I’m your host, Sandi Scheinbaum, and today I have a special guest, Olivia Thomas. And I’d like to share how I got to meet Olivia. It was through her sister, Eva. I met Eva at HLTH ’23. It was a big event with over 10,000 attendees in Las Vegas, and it was all about moving the needle forward in healthcare.

And so we bonded initially, and I’m going to turn it over to Olivia, who’s Eva’s sister, and she’s going to tell you all about her company, Rewire, and what their mission is. And then we’re going to talk about the role of health coaches in culinary medicine. So, welcome, Olivia.

Olivia: Thank you so much for having me. This is extremely exciting. So, I’m a dietician by training, and I like to give a background on why I decided dietetics. So, we grew up in a single-parent household, and my job growing up was cooking. And I learned pretty quickly that I was maybe less interested in culinary excellence and more in providing nourishing food. And so that interest became a hobby that then became my profession. And once I became a dietician, I started working at Boston Medical Center where I led a teaching kitchen. And then I became the director of nutrition innovation implementation. And then a couple years ago, my sister and I started Rewire Health, which is a digital platform for culinary medicine.

Sandi: I love that initiative. So, can you explain what is culinary medicine and how does it differ from, like, lifestyle medicine?

Olivia: Absolutely. So, culinary medicine is more of a pedagogy or teaching style, and I like to think about it in comparing to riding a bike. So, the way we learn to ride bikes is by going outside, putting our helmet on, and trying, and doing it, and failing, and trying again. And the same goes for behavior change, especially behavior change around nutrition. The way we change our diet is by tasting, touching, trying, really getting to know the foods we want to adopt, and, kind of, change our palettes in ways that enhance our health. And that’s what culinary medicine does. It gets people with food, trying, tasting, doing, and practicing.

Sandi: So, it’s a very hands-on approach.

Olivia: Absolutely.

Sandi: Is it like a cooking school where you learn, like, knife skills, for example, you learn how to cook?

Olivia: Yeah, I can look very different depending on your goals and the different setting. So, like I said, I helped run a teaching kitchen where people would come for classes where they would learn, kind of, hands-on experience around cooking strategies or techniques, but it’s all within the perspective of, like, ease. So, we’re not trying to train the next chef. It’s practical skills to make healthy cooking easier and more doable on busy days. But that’s, kind of, like the traditional modality of culinary medicine, but then as we do at Rewire Health, it’s a digital platform. It’s something you, kind of, read and interact with in your own home.

Sandi: That sounds so cool. So, can you share more details about Rewire, what that actually looks like? And you have been working in the Boston area. So, who comes to Rewire? Who’s interested in what you do?

Olivia: Absolutely. So, Rewire Health is a digital platform that, kind of, scales culinary medicine as well as personalize content. And the personalization is the most important factor. In many years of working with people around food, it became obvious that there are many ways of eating. And my goal isn’t to change everyone’s diet to be one diet but rather enhance what they already do and like and love, and that relates to food preferences, or cultural food traditions, or access and availability. Everyone’s different, and highlighting the foods you already like and love is a great place to get started.

And so Rewire Health provides cooking training and lessons related to the food you like and have on hand. And so recipe frameworks can be changed based on your preferences. And then with that comes all of the education around how to prepare that food in ways that promote your health based on your own specific goals.

And for me, it’s a wonderful adjunct service to culinary medicine programs because, in programming, you may go once or twice but having a tool at home allows for that practice daily. So, now it’s not just, you know, “My culinary medicine class once a week,” it’s, “What can I do every day?” And that daily behavior, as we know as coaches, is something that then turns into sustainable behavior, and that’s the ultimate goal.

Sandi: Yeah, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the problems that we encounter because people don’t know how to cook, or they didn’t grow up around seeing their families cook. And they are relying more and more on processed, prepared meals.

Here’s an example. I was at a store recently. It was a Whole Foods in a major urban center, and they were catering to a younger, mostly single population. And so they had, like, rows and rows of prepared…all you had to do is heat it up. But everybody in line to check out was buying these prepared foods as opposed to going in the produce section or the meat section and cooking from scratch. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

Olivia: Absolutely. So, I mean, as a society, we’ve pivoted towards ease. Our lives are busy. Most people are working, and they’re at capacity. They don’t have time in a day to prepare meals, let alone feed a family and then clean up. I mean, as we know, cooking is a lot of steps. You got to get the ingredients, you got to prepare the ingredients, you then have to eat it, and then you have to clean up. That’s a lot of steps, especially when you have other things going on and you’re busy. And so we then default to easier options like takeout or processed foods, and there’s been quite a bit of literature around the processing of foods and not being maybe one of the major risk factors to chronic illness related to the foods we eat.

And so pivoting away from processed foods and eating more, kind of, from-the-ground foods, foods that have not been ultra-processed is the ideal eating pattern to help prevent and manage disease. And that’s easier said than done because if you’ve spent the last multiple decades buying food to now transition to prepare food is a big change.

And I think there’s also an understanding that now cooking is intensive, and so you then think, kind of, black and white. It’s either nothing or everything. I’m either going to eat fast food, or I need to prepare this three-hour meal that takes lots of time.

And I think what I’m interested in doing is help to debunk that concept of ease like preparing food at home can be easy. And there are quite a few medically tailored meals that help provide the ease of fast food but the health benefits of more nutritious meals. But the issue with the medically tailored meal for some people is that it’s not really behavior change or teaching skills. And so instead of helping address the root cause, which is a lack of maybe knowledge or understanding, it’s, kind of, perpetuating a problem of relying on food prepared for you. And for some people, that is helpful, especially those who are chronically ill and have maybe disabilities that prevent them from preparing food. But for a general population, having the skills is going to be a much better solution than, you know, just using a healthier processed option.

Sandi: Oh, for sure. Can you share some examples of how Rewire Health is teaching those skills through your digital platform?

Olivia: Absolutely. So, I’ll use the recipe as a stir fry. So, your recipe library is customized to you and your medical needs, kind of, your goals. And then within a recipe, you can choose something, so I’ll say stir fry. And then when I get my framework, I can change out ingredients based on what I like or have available. And that includes the types of vegetables I’m using or the protein source or the type of grain I’m going to have with my stir fry. And I can make those choices. And based on those choices, we’ll pull different educational materials that are delivered in a step-by-step manner. So, now I’ll learn how to chop the bell pepper. I’m going to learn how to make my sauce using the ingredients that I have. I’m going to learn how to sauté or stir fry my vegetables and protein.

And so you’re basically creating a recipe that is based on your food choices that then provides skills on how to do it. And what’s great is all those videos are used across skills. So, every time you see a bell pepper, you’re going to chop it the same way. And that allows for that practice and learning. And that’s how we do learn. That’s the bike analogy. You need to keep getting on the bike and trying. So, you need to keep chopping the bell pepper until one day it’s a little bit easier, and you don’t have to think so much about it.

Sandi: I love that. So, are these videos training where they’re actually showing step-by-step how to chop that bell pepper?

Olivia: Yes, videos and then it’s also written out so you can opt into how you like to learn best. And it’s delivered in a flashcard model, so it says, “Chop the bell pepper.” And you’re like, “I have no idea how to do that.” So, you can press a button and get your video. But as you learn, you might not need the video anymore and you’ll just see chop bell pepper and you’ll know how to do it. And you can, kind of, move on along the recipe.

Sandi: This is so cool. And it reminds me, this is a different area, but I knit and I crochet. And sometimes I will come across a particular stitch pattern, and I don’t know how to do it, and so I’ll go to YouTube, and I’ll find it, and I will look at that video. It’s really helpful, particularly as a visual learner. But what I like here is that you don’t have to go to YouTube, you know, because now you’re faced with like so many choices. What am I going to click on? But this is all in a box, so to speak. It’s all right there.

Olivia: And based on your choice. And I think that’s where, again, teaching cooking skills, it was really observing that there’s that personalization needed. So, for some people, cooking potatoes is something you know how to do, but rice is something different. And for other people, rice is something you know how to do, but I’ve never peeled a potato. And so where do you start for everyone? And that’s, kind of, the benefit of letting people choose their ingredients because you’re letting them maybe pick things they’re more comfortable with from the beginning rather than defining that for them and then having resources as they explore new foods, new skills, and new interests. So, yeah, that’s a great analogy or comparison. And I think the only…yeah, and then because of food, we had to have that personalization aspect because everyone’s coming from different places and different eating patterns.

Sandi: Yeah, and as I’m imagining, you can personalize like if someone’s gluten-free or dairy-free or has other sensitivities or preferences that you can filter those ingredients out.

Olivia: Yes, absolutely.

Sandi: Mm-hmm. What about shopping lists? Because often that’s an area too where people don’t know or they’re not familiar with certain ingredients.

Olivia: Yeah, so it’s written based on shoppers. So, oftentimes you’re purchasing either a specific brand or something recommended to, kind of, help you navigate a grocery store. And then we’re often using an entire thing. So, you’re using, like, a whole bag of something or a whole can of something. And we try to really reduce food waste. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for the technology with integrations with shoppable recipes and, kind of, expanding it to even more convenience. At this point, we don’t have that, but that’s kind of one area we’re discovering.

Sandi: That’s so cool. And you mentioned that you’re working with some hospitals.

Olivia: Yes, so Food Is Medicine is, kind of, this national concept where health systems are not only acknowledging that nutrition is part of care but both screening and tools are being required of hospitals to provide. And so Rewire Health is a great way for a health system to start a culinary medicine program or to offer additional services to their existing program. And so we have about six hospitals currently piloting the technology with different groups with different goals. And then we have about four nonprofits actively using it in different ways with different goals in mind. So, we’re testing it out with lots of different people and, kind of, getting feedback and improving the platform as we go.

Sandi: I love this initiative. What would be your vision for how you’d want to grow and scale into the future?

Olivia: Yeah, great question. And this is maybe a good question for my sister, Eva, who’s our CEO and, kind of, leading a lot of our business initiatives. I mean, our primary goal is to work with all sorts of different organizations to provide personalized culinary medicine. And within that, I think there’s a lot of room for integration. So, there’s so many other amazing technologies and how can this one complement others. And so I think coaching is a great example. There’s wonderful coaching technologies, but providing people a way to practice food skills in between sessions, I think that’s a great use for our, like, Rewire platform.

Sandi: Yeah, so when I talked to Eva and then we talked as well, I could see health coaches being just a natural fit because they are inspiring people to get into their kitchen, to learn to cook, to overcome the obstacles, to preparing food at home, to having that aha moment where they say, “Yes, I can do this. It’s not complicated.” And it’s something that will even be less time-consuming than the time it would perhaps take me to go buy something prepared. I can put it together myself.

So, what do you see? What could it look like for health coaches to be using this platform or getting into culinary medicine?

Olivia: Yeah, great question. I really see it with goal setting, and we built the technology with that in mind of creating smart goals. And so having different frameworks where you can change out ingredients allows for people to try new things. And so, for example, most frameworks have a plant-based and animal-based protein option. And so maybe for one client, it is next week can you swap out a animal protein for a plant protein once? And we know that with coaching and goal setting that it needs to be achievable and maybe for someone that is one swap one week or trying one new vegetable they’ve never tried before. Or, for our recipe library, it goes from, kind of, assembly of food. So, like, using prepared foods that you can assemble into a meal to a scratch cooking. And so maybe a goal is, you know, trying one recipe that uses a new skill than you’ve tried before. So, moving from, like, a canned soup to, like, maybe preparing a one-pot soup. And so allowing people those tangible, kind of, smart goals, I think is a great way it can be incorporated into a coaching plan or, kind of, in coaching in general.

Sandi: Yeah, that’s a great idea because I think at the end of the day, the mission is to get people to overcome their fear, overcome the obstacles to cooking, and having a sense that, “I can do this.” And then the proof is in the pudding as they feel better about it.

Olivia: Yeah, and excited to share the food they prepare. And I think that’s what we have going for us with food and nutrition. There’s a built-in benefit. Like, you prepare something, and hopefully, it tastes delicious, and you can share it with other people. There’s not tons of behaviors that result in that type of gratifying moment of like, “This tastes great and I can share it.” Like, that’s a wonderful thing. And so we, kind of, have that built into nutrition in general.

Sandi: Bingo. I love that because I think you touched on something that’s critical and often overlooked. And there was a cookbook by that name. In fact, I have it, “The Joy of Cooking,” a classic cookbook, and it’s a time-honored principle. And that is we receive… Cooking and eating with people is one of the main ways that we connect. And to be able to share a meal together, to be able to prepare food that you made, and bringing in your family, because it’s not just you. If you live with others, involve your kids, involve your partners, you prepare that together. And looking at ways that you’re using that as a way to communicate.

There’s a series on… It’s called Julia. It’s about Julia Child. I’m old enough to remember Julia Child. I watched her shows. In these shows, they have many scenes in this series of people cooking or eating together and enjoying the food that they all participate in preparing it. And it’s just so lovely to see this community coming together and cooking. I wonder if you’d comment on that.

Olivia: Yeah. I mean, I’ve seen the series, and it’s amazing. I mean, Julia Child’s amazing. And just, kind of, on a tangent, so Julia Child started a culinary or gastronomy school in Boston, and starting in this next semester, I’ll be teaching a culinary medicine course at the MET School at the…making Julia Child proud with our culinary medicine course in her gastronomy school. Yeah, and I think it looks different for everyone, and that’s the other piece of humility as providers and as people like bringing this mission to fruition that cooking together can look really different. Not everyone has to love cooking the way I love cooking or the way you might love cooking. For some people, that might be using a rotisserie chicken in interesting ways, but it’s getting that comfort and group moment of being together, tasting, commenting, “Did you like this? What could have made it better?” Like, that is what we want, and it could be a stew from scratch that takes five hours to cook to using a rotisserie chicken in three ways. It doesn’t really matter. We’re not looking for culinary excellence. We’re looking for connection around healthy food and finding foods that families love. That’s, kind of, the key.

Sandi: Yeah, absolutely. And you can even take prepared food and add some more spices, add some vegetables to it, add your own touch to create a healthier choice as well as one that is more your own, you take more ownership of it. So, there’s lots and lots of possibilities.

Olivia: So… Oh, go ahead.

Sandi: No, go ahead.

Olivia: Yeah, it reminds me… So, I teach in a medical school, and we teach all sorts of different recipes to providers and the goals of this culinary medicine class is to help medical providers better talk about food with their patients. And at the end of every semester, we have the participants, kind of, rate their favorite recipes. And the ramen always wins, which is how to turn packaged ramen into more healthful, complete meal. And we make some really cool things, and for some reason, the ramen always wins because I think it gets people excited that it doesn’t have to be so hard, and it could be just adding vegetables and making your own seasoning to a packet of ramen. And that still counts as, like, preparing food and being healthful. So, to your point, I think it can be prepared foods, kind of, made a little bit healthier based on what your goals are specifically, and we see that with the medical students.

Sandi: Yeah, there’s so many ways you can do that. I used to do it with my kids. I’d have a prepared soup that they love, and I would throw in, at the time, kale or other leafy greens or other healthy things. I blend it in and they loved it. They had no idea…

Olivia: Yeah, exactly.

Sandi: …what I had added to that. Yeah, so where can people find you if they want to know more?

Olivia: Yeah. So, can you post a link to our website Rewire Health?

Sandi: Yeah.

Olivia: And we offer, kind of, two things. We offer our digital platform, which is our culinary medicine platform. And it not only is useful for individual providers and private practice, but we also have a mechanism for more clinical care. And then we actually also have an expert’s service where we offer consulting and support if you want to build a culinary medicine practice. And so our consulting team can do webinars or trainings or help with program design. So, depending on how interested you are in adopting a culinary medicine program, we can help from just adoption of tech to building a more robust program.

Sandi: That’s great. So, it would be possible that a coach can have clients and, if they are interested in going further, you can work something out where that coach can share your platform with their clients.

Olivia: Yes.

Sandi: All right. Well, this is very exciting. As somebody who loves to cook, I’m a big fan of culinary medicine, and I’ve watched the growth of culinary medicine, and it’s particularly encouraging to, going into medical school, see our providers who are in training starting out with an appreciation for food as medicine.

Olivia: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today. I really appreciate it.

Sandi: Thank you, and I applaud your mission.