When Janet Chong-Lee began specializing in geriatrics in her career as a pharmacist, she immediately wondered why some seniors thrived in vibrancy and good health, whereas others were incredibly frail and ill.
Janet soon recognized that everyday prevention is key: more could be done at an earlier age to increase the chance of health throughout life, and that nutrition and cooking play an essential role in the process.
“I realized a lot of health starts more upstream,” she says. “We need to be teaching people now in school about it. We’re spending more and more money on treating these conditions that are mostly very much preventable.”
Starting a pharmacy career
Janet completed her pharmacy degree at the University of Toronto in 2008 and immediately started working at a large drugstore chain as a pharmacist. She then moved on to a rehabilitation hospital and long-term care before shifting in 2015 to her current position as the clinical pharmacist for a geriatric outreach team with her Board Certified Geriatric Pharmacist and Certified Diabetes Educator designation.
Along with her colleagues, she completes at-home assessments and offers support for seniors, along with developing education modules for the Ontario Pharmacists’ Association (OPA) Canada’s Board Certified Geriatric Pharmacist certification and delivering educational talks to her colleagues. She also writes monthly blog posts, covering a wide range of health and nutrition topics.
Janet has always been physically active and enjoys playing sports. In 2017, she registered for a local Toronto boot camp that soon led to two new certifications: one in fitness and nutrition, and the other in holistic weight loss. The more Janet learned about health, exercise, weight loss and wellness, the more she discovered the crucial role of quality nutrition and wanted to hone in on food.
After seeing the varied successes of other graduates, she knew the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program could help her expand her nutrition knowledge and integrate it into both her personal life and in her career as a pharmacist.
“I don’t like to operate in silos, so I wanted to equip myself with the skills on a more holistic level and learn how I could marry everything together,” she says. “I thought the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program would be a useful tool to add to my toolbox to provide better care and interventions to patients, clients, and to myself and my family members.”
And so in September 2019, while on maternity leave, Janet joined the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program.
Developing brand-new skills in the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program
Janet ate a primarily standard American diet growing up and while she knew some cooking basics, she describes herself as far from a masterful cook. Janet loved many aspects of her time in the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program – but especially the food and learning how to prepare it.
She enjoyed discovering ingredients and trying new recipes, understanding how to make healthier swaps and intentional food choices, deciphering ingredient labels, and learning to adapt recipe ingredients to align with her health goals. She also treasured the meal prep and menu planning instruction in the program, which are practical skills she uses daily at home and teaches to her colleagues and clients.
“Completing the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program has boosted my confidence with cooking,” she says. “I now have the skills and the ability to discern which recipes are good for me and my family.”
Although she found the program challenging and intense as well, after 14 weeks Janet acquired a host of new skills that inspired and motivated the next stage of her career.
“They teach us about non-pharmacological interventions in pharmacy school, but sometimes that falls by the wayside and the focus is more on medication,” Janet explains. “While medications are useful and I’m very grateful for lifesaving medications for people who need it, the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program really opened my eyes and reminded me about all the things I can do in addition to medications.”
“Completing the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program has boosted my confidence with cooking. I now have the skills and the ability to discern which recipes are good for me and my family.”
Integrating culinary nutrition into pharmacology and health care
Photo: Janet’s Paleo Japchae
Of course, there are many medicines that are necessary, yet nearly 80% of older adults are on at least two medications in the United States and Canada – and 36% are taking five or more.
Janet works with seniors and their families, many of whom are burnt out and have had negative experiences in the health care system. A lot of her patients are dealing with some form of dementia.
On the nutrition side, Janet’s patients are primarily subsisting on ultra-processed foods, sweets and refined carbohydrates. Others are low-income seniors relying on meal programs or food banks, where they don’t receive a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables or adequate protein.
In the face of these challenges, Janet aims to educate her patients within her scope of practice as a pharmacist, meeting them where they are at and offering solutions based on what they are capable of tackling. She’s adapted intake forms to include questions about sleep, stress and lifestyle in addition to collecting information about medications.
“It’s never just one thing – everything ties in together to contribute to their medical conditions,” she says. “It’s recognizing that health isn’t just your medical health, it’s your spiritual health and it’s your physical health – and health really starts in the kitchen.”
Where possible and when relevant, Janet offers nutrition education and information to her patients. She explains what macronutrients and micronutrients are and why they’re important, gives examples of healthy foods to eat, and encourages seniors to consume as many nutrients as they can through food rather than supplements.
“They teach us about non-pharmacological interventions in pharmacy school, but sometimes that falls by the wayside and the focus is more on medication. While medications are useful and I’m very grateful for lifesaving medications for people who need it, the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program really opened my eyes and reminded me about all the things I can do in addition to medications.”
Plenty of seniors are on multiple medications, and on medications to treat the side effects of their drugs (this is called a ‘prescribing cascade’), so it can be a challenge to de-prescribe when holistic lifestyle practices aren’t established first. To seniors that have the capacity to approach conditions using food, Janet offers information and guidance on how dietary changes may affect their medications and whether dosages need to be adjusted.
“My job is rewarding. I’m not just a medication expert – certainly you can ask me about medications, but you can also ask me about sleep, blood sugar management, meal planning, meal prepping, recipes, stress management and lifestyle,” Janet says. “I’m looking at a person as a whole.”
The last several years of working in geriatrics have shown Janet that seniors need more help when they first begin to slow down, not years or decades later when they are tired, spent and extremely sick. Her career has also made Janet passionate about nutrition education and how important it is to teach core skills at a young age.
“More money needs to be put into prevention and preventative care. We need to be teaching children now in school about it in addition to all the other subjects,” Janet says. “We are losing that access to life skills. It’s important to know how to feed yourself and cook for yourself. People don’t have the skillset and it’s contributing to all the conditions we’re currently seeing.”
Massive shifts in health care certainly don’t happen overnight. With experts like Janet at the forefront, along with an increasing patient-driven desire to learn about the power of food, we’re well on the way.
If you are looking for ways you can use culinary nutrition to enhance your current career or business like Janet has, registration is currently open for the 2022 Culinary Nutrition Expert Program.