Neurologist Vanessa Baute, MD, loves food. Her favorite photo (which she graciously shared with us here) is one of her sitting down to her favorite Mexican dish. She says, “It’s literally the happiest I’ve ever been.” When her husband first saw the photo, she laughs, “He said ‘You never look at me that way.’”
Dr. Vanessa Baute eating her favorite Mexican dish
Dr. Vanessa Baute eating her favorite Mexican dish

This love of eating combined with a specialization in nutrition makes Dr. Baute one of the best neurologists to talk to about the role of food in health. At the Center for Integrative Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she is associate director of education, she gets asked a lot about things like turmeric, dark chocolate, and kale. And these questions not only come from her patients—medical students and even fellow attendings approach her for nutrition advice.

This is because, despite any skepticism surrounding food science, everyone is faced with food choices.

Every day, we have to consume food; otherwise we’re going to die. So much of food is also the pleasure experience, the communal experience, the social experience. We have these choices that we can make to pick something not only tasty but nutritious too. A lot of people think you can’t have both, but you really can.” (See her muffin recipe below.)

Traditionally physicians have had very little training in the science of nutrition. “That’s changing, though, with this new generation of students,” says Dr. Baute. “The students now are noticing that there is a disconnect between physicians, patients, and nutritional habits.” In response, some schools are beginning to offer nutrition classes. “There are some programs in the country that have really robust culinary medicine kitchens. They are rare, but they do exist now.”

When she first entered the field, Dr. Baute found patients asked her a lot about food and nutrition and she just didn’t have answers for them. This prompted her to complete a two-year integrative medicine fellowship through the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson.

Today Dr. Baute is an assistant professor of neurology at Wake Forest where she is passionate about teaching the new generation of medical students about nutrition. “Looking at the opportunity for food to improve our health and maintain our health, to prevent disease, is especially relevant to neurology,” she says. “Just because many of the leading diseases happen to be in our field. Some of them being stroke, dementia, migraines, among many others.”

Though Dr. Baute is active in student education, she considers herself primarily a clinician and notes that patients today are more educated than ever before. “Patients are asking very detailed questions like what dose of turmeric they should be eating for antioxidants.” Now she says she finally has the tools to help these patients.

Hand selecting green peas at farmer's market

To other clinicians who are interested in learning more about nutrition and helping their patients eat better Dr. Baute says to keep it simple. There is an increasing amount of research to back up nutrition advice but most of it still comes down to: “Eating real fruits and vegetables, avoiding processed foods, limited meat, and eating antioxidants or high phytonutrient foods is going to be good for you.”

Typically Dr. Baute starts by asking patients if they drink sodas or other sugary beverages and then works on reducing that. She also recommends sharing your own experience with patients. “Let them know, hey, I’m a human too. I love doughnuts, too, and this is how I deal with that.” In other words, your patients will value your advice more if you can be an example for them.

It’s also important that you meet them where they are. Maybe don’t start with quinoa, she says, “The conversation might just be about how they are eating potatoes and corn as their main vegetable, and we just talk about substituting sweet potatoes because they have more nutrients.”

Another thing Dr. Baute does: She gives her patients a concrete way to add healthy foods to their diet, by way of her spinach muffin recipe below.

Vanessa’s Spinach Muffins

1. Add the following to a blender, food processor or other mixing device:

– 4 dates
– 3 handfuls of organic spinach
– 1 cup blueberries or 1 orange (Foods rich in vitamin C help iron absorption)
– 2 eggs (May substitute a small avocado)
– 1 Tbsp ground flax
– 1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
– 1/2 tsp baking soda
– 1 cup organic rolled oats
– 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds

2. When fully mixed together, divide into muffin pan.

3. Bake at 330° for 25 minutes. Turn off oven, and let sit in the oven for another 15 minutes.

She makes these all the time for herself and for some (including you or your patients), it just might be an easier way to add spinach into their diet. Enjoy!