Discovering a Cure in the Kitchen

Portrait of Linda sitting outside in the sun in front of a large boulder. She is in her 50's, has brown shoulder length hair and wearing a white sweater.

Posted June 11, 2021

In 2006, Linda Menard’s life changed forever. A septic infection from a routine surgery caused inflammation throughout her body resulting in multiple organ damage, leaving her on a liquid diet and barely able to get out of bed. She spent the next 12 years in pain, sleeping 20 hours a day, exhausted and malnourished.

Today she is surprisingly upbeat in talking about her experience – crediting the Culinary Medicine program at the UVM Medical Center with providing her with a solution in 2019.

The National Institutes of Health defines Culinary Medicine as an “evidence-based field of medicine that blends the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine. The goal is to help people determine and access high-quality meals that help prevent and treat disease and restore well-being.”

“When I think of those 12 years, I had no energy, I was in bed all day long, sick as all get out, and on all of this medication,” Menard recalls. “I only got up for doctors’ appointments. And I remember how frightened I was of food.”

Like many sepsis survivors, Menard struggles with chronic pain, and she was diagnosed with gastroparesis, or the slow emptying of the stomach. Initially, she couldn’t keep any food down at all, and she lost 50 pounds in the first 10 months. “Every one of my organs was affected, with the exception of my heart and lungs,” says Menard, who had a kidney transplant in 2011, and will deal with a blood disorder for the rest of her life.

Physician Michael Latreille, MD, and Emily Clairmont, a clinical dietitian with UVM Medical Center, introduced Menard to Culinary Medicine. To treat Menard’s chronic pain and gastroparesis, Dr. Latreille and Clairmont started her on an elimination diet, then gradually added fresh and solid foods, one by one.

“We discovered that I’m lactose-intolerant and gluten-intolerant, and I’m on a purine-restricted, protein-restricted, low-potassium, low-sodium and low-phosphorus diet,” Menard says with a laugh. “It’s complicated, but the team makes it easy by focusing on what I can eat.”

That positive approach is one Clairmont says she emphasizes with all patients. “We know about the benefits of eliminating foods with a lot of refined sugars and saturated fats,” she says. “But we focus more on what you want to have – like brightly colored vegetables and fruits, high-fiber foods, whole grains and beans and plant-based proteins. Those offer an endless amount of health benefits,” she says.

Dr. Latreille says he’s referred quite a few of his patients for nutrition counseling and has collaborated with the Culinary Medicine Program on a number of projects. “Many of my patients have benefitted from working with Emily, and I thought Linda would similarly benefit from her well-informed and individualized approach. In addition to nutrition counseling, Linda has taken advantage of several offerings from Culinary Medicine and other programs here at UVM Medical Center, and has experienced a huge benefit,” he says.

Menard says her participation in the Culinary Medicine program has reduced her intake of pain medications by 60 to 75 percent as she has added more anti-inflammatory foods, such as spinach, kale, collard greens, nuts and fresh fruit, into her diet. Instead of subsisting on Ensure nutritional shakes, she now cooks three meals a day for herself at home, and was inspired to check out cookbooks from the local library. She even started her own small vegetable garden, and she’s up and about almost all day, napping only one or two days a week if she needs it.

“It’s been a 15-year battle, but it’s one I just can’t give up on,” Menard says.

Meanwhile, the UVM Medical Center Culinary Medicine program has grown in the last five years from offering just a few cooking classes and acting as a distributor of CSA farm shares through doctors’ offices, to partnerships with the Comprehensive Pain Program and with primary care physicians like Dr. Latreille. These integrations provide opportunities for patient education, in both group and one-on-one settings, about how food relates to wellness, prevention, pain reduction and disease management.

“I still have a long road ahead, but now I have a team of people with me. And I don’t feel silly when I ask, ‘What else can I do with celery?’ or ‘What is a lentil, because I’ve never heard of that!’” says Menard.

“I would never wish my experience on anyone, but I hope that anyone who does find themselves where I was, is as blessed as I have been with the caregivers on their team.”

Are you experiencing chronic pain or illness? Get in touch with your primary care doctor for help.