From Washington Post By Cara Rosenbloom: Despite research linking nutritious diets to disease prevention, food receives little attention in most practices. But a shift is slowly happening, doctors say.
Eating well can help prevent chronic conditions including heart disease, diabetes and obesity. So why aren’t more doctors prescribing broccoli and flaxseed?
Despite the wealth of research linking nutritious diets to disease prevention, the importance of food receives little attention in most physicians’ practices. But a shift is slowly happening, doctors say. More are recognizing the link between food and health and are advancing their nutrition knowledge to provide better patient care.
Nutrition education in medical school
The National Academies of Science recommend a minimum of 25 hours of nutrition education for medical students, but a 2015 study showed that 71 percent of medical schools failed to meet that goal. Despite this lack of formal nutrition education, doctors remain a trusted source of nutrition information for patients. But just 14 percent of physicians say they feel adequately trained in nutrition counseling.
“Food touches our patients in so many conditions — diabetes, celiac disease, food allergies, high blood pressure — we need more education about food and nutrition so we can be better physicians,” says Timothy Harlan, a practicing internist and associate dean for clinical services at Tulane University School of Medicine.
Harlan is part of the groundswell toward educating physicians about nutrition. He’s also executive director of Tulane’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, the first dedicated teaching kitchen implemented at a medical school. Yes, you read that right: It’s an actual kitchen where medical students learn to cook and provide nutrition advice to patients.
“We translate courses like anatomy, physiology and biochemistry into practical conversations about food that doctors will have with patients in exam rooms. We teach doctors about food so they can teach the community,” Harlan says.
The inclusion of nutrition education in medical schools is a growing trend. The Goldring Center has already licensed its culinary nutrition program to 25 other medical schools and six residency programs, and Harlan says he talks to a few medical schools or residency programs every week about what Tulane is doing.
There’s even a bill before Congress to try to enforce nutrition education for physicians. The Enrich Act hopes to use grants to encourage the development and expansion of nutrition and physical activity curriculums.
After medical school
For doctors who missed the culinary curriculum in medical school, there are now opportunities for nutrition-based residencies, fellowships, conferences and online continuing medical education (CME) courses.
“The few hours of nutrition that are taught in medical school are often nutritional biochemistry, which has nothing to do with food. Those scientific teachings can’t help doctors answer practical patient questions, like ‘Which fat is best — butter, margarine or oil?’ ” says Victoria Maizes, executive director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, which offers nutrition courses both in medical school and as post-graduate education.
The center’s most popular CME course focuses on the “anti-inflammatory diet,” Maizes says. Culinary-minded physicians can also attend the center’s Nutrition & Health Conference, a combination of lectures and tastings that focus on everything from gluten-free diets to sustainable food systems.
“When a doctor learns about a healthy lifestyle, they are more successful at motivating their patients to be healthier, too,” Maizes says.
What about dietitians?
Seventy percent of Americans say registered dietitians are their most trusted source for nutrition information. So why do doctors need to know more about nutrition?
“We’re not trying to turn physicians into dietitians,” Harlan says. “But many people don’t get to see a dietitian as easily as a doctor. So the physician should have some basic nutrition knowledge.”
He and others in the field have said that when doctors learn more about nutrition, they are better at integrating dietitians into the health-care team and are more likely to refer patients to a dietitian as readily as they would to a cardiologist or endocrinologist. It creates a more effective medical plan, they say, where patients are taught about using food as prevention or treatment before turning to medications or surgical intervention.