Discussing the release of her latest cookbook, The Kitchen Prescription, gastroenterologist and Masterchef winner Dr Saliha Mahmood Ahmed wishes NHS doctors were better able to discuss nutrition with their patients. By Hatty Willmoth.

Dr Saliha Mahmood Ahmed wears many professional hats. She’s a doctor in the NHS specialising in gastroenterology – that’s digestion and gut health, to most of us.

But she’s also an expert cook, having won Masterchef in 2017, and she’s the author of several recipe books.

Her latest, The Kitchen Prescription, is a Sunday Times bestseller that promises to arm buyers with “101 delicious everyday recipes to revolutionise your gut health”.

But why devote so much time and energy – her medical specialism and this cookbook – to the gut?

Because of “the intimate connection between the health of the gut and virtually every other system of the body”, says Mahmood Ahmed.

“[For] any organ or system that you can think of, we're now unravelling the connection between the health of the gut and the health of all of those other tissues and organs, and the way that they function.

“It's a very new, evolving, emerging field of science … [but] its importance is not just about digestive health and symptoms, it's about the wider health of the human being and how we function in all of our systems rather than just our gut alone.”

Patients want to know about food - but doctors can't always help them

As the title The Kitchen Prescription would suggest, Mahmood Ahmed says she “absolutely” wishes she could prescribe recipes like these to her patients.

“In my clinical practice, the overwhelming majority of patients who I see are interested [in] and desire a food-related cure for their problems,” she says.

“I can’t offer a ‘cure’ as such using food … but I think food is a really, really useful adjunct that can be helpful for patients.

“If you’ve got a patient with diabetes, being able to talk about food-related ways of controlling blood sugars is a very useful thing to do. Yet, many doctors lack the ability to do that.”

This problem applies across every medical specialty, says Mahmood Ahmed – even in gastroenterology, where all her patients want to know what to eat to ease or resolve their digestive symptoms.

“It may come as a surprise,” she says, “but many, many gastroenterologists just don’t have that food-related information in their repertoire to be able to talk to patients about it, or maybe not in the detail that a patient would perhaps desire.”

Instead, Mahmood Ahmed explains, patients are generally referred to NHS dieticians, who can’t cope with demand.

“Dietetic services are swamped. Swamped! They have so many referrals; they are all so, so overworked.”

Timing is everything: when to talk to patients about food

Plus, she says, dieticians often give advice much later down the line than would be beneficial. For instance, a heart attack patient may be treated in hospital and be discharged home long before they receive dietary advice – if they do at all.

“My argument is that there was that index point at that time where a patient was acutely affected by illness in hospital, where we could have instigated some really positive changes.

“We know that motivation is highest when an index event [such as a heart attack] happens for a patient as well. So, I fear that there is missed opportunity because of skills barriers [of doctors who don’t know enough about nutrition].”

Nutrition for doctors, recipes for patients

The situation is improving, she says, as medical schools have gone from teaching almost no nutrition to a small amount in their curriculums, and the appetite for learning about nutrition has grown among doctors.

But Mahmood Ahmed wishes that doctors would include nutrition amongst the myriad of courses they take every year to continue their professional development; “training for doctors never ends”.

And, in an ideal world, she says, a patient with raised cholesterol would be sent home not just with a statin – as millions of patients are – but with “a bank of recipes tailored to them”.

That’s where she feels books such as The Kitchen Prescription can come in.

“Scientific endeavour will rarely be creative enough to put recipes out,” says Mahmood Ahmed. “Science takes you to a certain level, and it will explain what makes certain foods healthy…

“[But] taking that step from the science to your kitchen is quite a big one.”

Her dual specialisms, of chef and doctor-scientist, puts her in the unique position of being able to write recipes that she feels can help bridge that gap; her “interpretation” of gut-healthy food.

How does The Kitchen Prescription help support gut health?

Mahmood Ahmed’s book is plant-centric – just like her diet. She’s not vegan or vegetarian, she clarifies, but believes “eating more plants is central to achieving good gut health”.

She encourages people to count the number of different plants they’re eating each week – and not to count anything else. To help, her recipes all indicate how many plants they use.

Likewise, her recipes employ an extensive array of spices, to support good health “in many different domains”.

Mahmood Ahmed encourages people to experiment with gut-healthy probiotic foods, i.e. fermented foods containing live microorganisms, such as kefir, Greek yoghurt, sauerkraut and kombucha.

And she says people should make good use of freezers, storecupboards, tins and dried foods to “achieve gut health on a budget”.

But, most fundamental of all, she hopes to encourage people to just get cooking.

“Cook for yourself and cook from scratch, if you can – and everybody can, really,” says Mahmood Ahmed. “Cook, cook, cook, because that reliance on ultra-processed foods and pre-cooked foods is one of the things which is driving us away from our optimal health.”

It’s a priority which, for Mahmood Ahmed, seems linked to childhood, memory and culture.

Homecooked food and a cure for every ailment

“My parents are doctors,” she says. “My mum was a very, very firm advocate of cooking at home every single night and making sure that we always had freshly cooked foods.”

She describes memories of her mother cooking from scratch while both explaining its importance and lamenting having to make it after a long day of work in the NHS.

“I grew up with the expectation that, irrespective of how busy you are, food needs to be home-cooked fresh, and ultra-processed foods were not really an option.”

Mahmood Ahmed also says that, from childhood, she was aware of food being intimately linked with health.

“I come from a South Asian family where food is the cure for everything,” she says. “You feel sick? Okay, someone's going to go and make you a mint and fennel tea. You have toothache? Somebody's going to make you some clove oil to put on the tooth that's hurting.

“Growing up, my grandmothers would talk about food that you have to eat in particular seasons … to maintain the internal temperature of the body.

“This is a very alien concept to lots of people, but they would say things like: ‘Oranges are cold foods. You can’t eat them in the winter, it will make you sick. But nuts and dried fruit? That’s a warm food.’

“Or, if you ever had period pain, for example, they would say: ‘Right, well, don’t eat anything cold.’ …there’s this whole concept that they apply to food for different seasons and internal physiologies.

“All the grandmothers still do it; they haven’t forgotten about it… Now, I’m a scientist; I know that foods don’t have certain temperatures – but it’s an interesting concept, isn’t it?

“They felt that they could cure things or help certain things with the food that they fed. So, I had that background subliminally growing up.”

A foodie, a doctor and a "massive nerd"

From childhood watching her mother cook or following the advice of her grandmothers, Mahmood Ahmed says she was “always on a personal journey working out the links between food and nutrition”.

She says she was also always “really foodie”, winning a food competition in secondary school with a prize to do an apprenticeship in a London restaurant and pursue a career in food.

Although she chose medicine instead, Mahmood Ahmed says she “always had this internal inclination” to cook, and in her medical school yearbook, she wrote that in 10 years she saw herself ‘doing something with food’.

As a doctor, she chose to specialise in gastroenterology, where food is “really critically important”.

She says: “We see colitis patients, we see coeliac disease, we see lactose intolerance, we see chronic diarrhoea, chronic bloating, and all of these habits have a very deep-rooted relationship with food.”

Her nutrition know-how is self-taught, driven by an “inquisitive nature” and a desire to find answers for her patients throughout her 12 years as a doctor.

“I’m just fascinated by it,” she says. “I’m a massive, massive nerd, in summary.”

Nutrition as a powerful medicine

Since publishing The Kitchen Prescription, Mahmood Ahmed says the feedback she has received has been “really touching and quite overwhelming”.

“Not a week goes by where I don't get messages from people saying: ‘I used your book. I was in a pre-diabetic state; I'm now no longer diabetic.’

“Someone said to me: ‘My skin is so much better than it ever has been.’ Another person said to me: ‘I hadn't pooed properly for years, and I now go once every other day, which is a miracle for me.’

“Those sorts of things make you think, this is actually really, really powerful. It makes you motivated to continue doing it. I think it's really quite beautiful.”

The Kitchen Prescription is out now, and a recipe from the book is available to try on our website: a Gut-healing Masala Cottage Pie.

Healthcare professionals who want to study nutrition may be interested in ION’s Graduate Diploma in Integrative Functional Nutrition or any of its buildable credit bearing short courses.

Enjoyed this article?

Learn about the impact of nutrition on surgical outcomes with this interview

For articles and recipes subscribe to the Optimum Nutrition newsletter

Discover our courses in nutrition