Chunxiang Jin/World Journal

Left: Vegetables grown by staff members in the rooftop garden of Gracie Square Hospital. Right: Psychiatrist Fong Liu and chef Zhicheng Ma.

Read the original story in Chinese at World Journal

Translated by Rong Xiaoqing

Food is important for everybody. But Asian mental health specialists have found that it can also play an important role in treating Asian patients, and that providing them with fresh, healthy and culturally competent food can help control mental illness and help patients get better.

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This conclusion was drawn from the practice of the Asian Psychiatry program at Gracie Square Hospital on Manhattan’s East Side. Since its inception 20 years ago, the program has been providing patients with healthy, tasty meals and snacks made by in-house Chinese chefs following Asian recipes. Zhicheng Ma, a chef who joined the hospital 13 years ago, designed the menu for Asian patients based on their gastronomic habits. For example, he said, Asians like to have congee or noodle soup for breakfast, so he offers them these choices together with western-style breakfast items, including milk and scrambled eggs.

Fong Liu, a psychiatrist and the director of the program, said the biggest inconveniences for many patients who stay in the hospital are food and language access. And while Chinese patients who are hospitalized in New York can often get adequate interpretation assistance, food remains an issue: Even after many years of living in the U.S., some patients still are not used to American food. If the hospital can provide Chinese-style food, Chinese patients feel as if they were having meals at home, which can help them calm down and lead to better treatment and recovery.

Liu said depression and bipolar disorder in particular can affect a patient’s appetite. Tasty and familiar food can help reduce their anxiety, help them maintain a good mood and control their illness. She said Chinese food is easy to digest and is popular among non-Chinese patients, too. “Food is the most  important and fundamental part of life,” Liu said.

Liu said some senior patients had not been eating well before they were hospitalized — they could only order takeout delivery because of motion impairment, and some didn’t eat regular meals. But the program provides patients three meals and two snacks a day at regular times to make sure they receive a balanced intake of carbohydrates, protein and fat.

Liu added that awareness about mental health among Asians has improved a lot in recent years, and many who struggle with mental illness have realized the importance of hospital treatment. The number of Asian patients enrolling in the program has increased 20 percent in the last two years.

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