Cooking for Health

B YourselfName: Mandy Willig, Ph.D., R.D.

Hometown: Bernice, Louisiana

Profession: Assistant Professor, UAB Department of Medicine and Division of Infectious Diseases


What’s your concentration?

I research the best ways to help people living with HIV make good nutrition choices to prevent chronic diseases. In the United States, someone diagnosed with HIV today can live a healthy life (into their 70s!) by taking just one or two pills a day. Unfortunately, these men and women have a higher than normal risk for developing diabetes and heart disease, and my coworkers and I want to prevent that from happening.
What’s one way you’ve provided assistance?

Cooking classes. One of the best ways to improve your diet is to just cook more! Many people have not learned to cook and have forgotten that the base of our southern diet is actually rich in vegetables and fruits, with lots of spices and seasonings. Our patients asked us for cooking classes to reconnect with their southern roots and learn healthier ways to use the same foods in delicious, inexpensive recipes.
What are some of the health benefits of taking a cooking class?

Cooking classes can introduce you to new ways to cook foods you have been eating your entire life, and seasoning/flavor combinations you might not have tried otherwise. They also provide a setting to make friends and socialize with people who share similar interests, and research shows that social support can actually improve your health.
What are some healthy ingredients used to replace typical unhealthy staple household ingredients?

I would say “minimize” instead of “replace.” Out of all of the salt you consume, only 10 percent comes from the food you cook—the rest comes from eating processed foods! So use a little salt; use a little lard to make the occasional biscuit. But also use more seasonings such as basil, allspice, curry, pepper, and olive or canola oil to spice up your vegetables and meat. A good cooking class will teach you how to make the right substitutions to get great taste for the same (or cheaper) price.
What kind of recipe variety do you teach?

Southern food is very much influenced by its African roots, which includes 53 different African countries and island nations with recipes based on vegetables, healthy fats, and lean meats. You see the same foundation throughout the Americas and in Caribbean, European, and Asian food, so it is possible to eat a healthy and tasty meal in every cuisine.


How can we learn more about the program?

As a scientist, I had limited time to develop a cooking class curriculum. At the UAB 1917 Clinic, we were fortunate to partner with Oldways to offer their Taste of African Heritage program, which our participants of different races all enjoyed. The recipes were simple, inexpensive, and (most importantly) tasty. Check out their website at to find a class or volunteer as an instructor.


Interview and photograph by Angela Karen.

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