Whether it’s a cold, cough or stomach bug, physicians are usually our first line of defense against illness and infection. But when the problem is related to what you’re putting on your plate, should your doctor really be your go-to source for guidance?
Surprisingly, most medical schools offer little to no nutritional education, yet still expect physicians to be able to provide comprehensive nutrition advice to patients upon graduation.
In fact, research shows that medical school graduates around the globe are lacking in basic nutritional knowledge, and nearly one-third of programs don’t even require a nutrition course as part of their curriculum, leaving many physicians unprepared and ill-equipped to educate patients about nutrition.
Nutrition Education in Medical School: Limited
There’s no doubt nutrition plays a central role in overall health. Even a minor nutritional deficiency can cause serious side effects, including birth defects, issues with growth and development, brain fog, fatigue, impaired immune function and more.
Diet is also crucial when it comes to disease prevention. In fact, filling up on the right foods — and limiting others — could potentially reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, along with a slew of other chronic conditions.
Unfortunately, many medical schools focus more on medications than food, placing the emphasis on treating problems once they arise rather than preventing them through healthy lifestyle changes.
For this reason, nutrition education is very limited in most medical schools. For example, a 2010 study found that medical students in the United States received an average of 19.6 hours of nutrition education, and only 25 percent of schools required a dedicated nutrition course in their curriculum.
A 2016 study had similar findings, reporting that primary care residency programs across Ohio provided an average of just 2.8 hours of education each year on obesity, nutrition and physical activity.
Lancet Study: Most Docs Not Qualified to Give Nutritional Advice
A new review published in The Lancet compiled the results of 24 studies that evaluated the nutrition knowledge and skills of medical students. The review included studies from around the globe, including areas like the United States, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Oceania.
Based on the review, researchers concluded that nutrition is not well-incorporated into medical education, regardless of the year or location of the medical school.
In one study, over half of medical students scored below the pass rate on an exam designed to assess nutritional knowledge. Not only that, just 56 percent felt comfortable counseling patients on nutritional recommendations, and only 12 percent were actually aware of the most current dietary reference intakes.
Another study found recent medical graduates were able to correctly answer only 52 percent of questions on basic nutritional knowledge, and just 15 percent of graduates were able to list the daily recommendations for carbohydrate, protein and fat consumption.
As if that wasn’t troubling enough, a survey of medical education directors from across Europe reported that an average of less than 24 hours of nutrition education was provided to medical students over the course of their training, and over 31 percent of programs didn’t require any nutrition education at all.
According to The Lancet review, “Collectively, it is clear that despite the centrality of nutrition to healthy lifestyle, graduating medical students are not supported through their education to provide high-quality, effective nutrition care to patients — a situation that has gone on for too long.”
A lack of funding and shortage of professionals to train students are two factors that may contribute to the lack of nutrition education in medical schools. Many programs also focus on treating conditions rather than preventing them, which may also play a role.
On the bright side, a number of initiatives have emerged recently to call for a change in this disturbing gap in the medical education system. Programs like the Nutrition in Medicine project and Healthy Kitchen, Healthy Lives are helping to equip healthcare professionals with the nutritional knowledge they need to improve their clinical practice.
Better Options for Nutrition-Related Care
Next time you need nutrition-related guidance or care, consider consulting with a registered dietitian instead. These nutrition professionals have undergone extensive training to understand the intricate relationship between diet and health and can help provide nutritional recommendations tailored to your specific needs.
In the United States, registered dietitians are required to earn a bachelor’s degree from a program accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which involves completing courses in nutrition, health and physiology, along with other subjects such as genetics, biochemistry, microbiology and nutrient metabolism.
Students are also required to complete 1,200 hours of supervised practice and pass an exam to secure the RD credential. Many also go on to receive graduate degrees in clinical nutrition, dietetics or public health.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics makes it easy to locate a registered dietitian in your area to help address your individual health needs. Using the tool on their website, you can also locate experts with a specific expertise, such as sports nutrition, pediatric health, digestive disorders or diabetes.
Alternatively, you can also consult with a certified nutritionist for nutrition-related care. Certified nutritionists, also sometimes called certified nutrition consultants or specialists, usually undergo a certification program to study nutrition, health and fitness. These courses can last anywhere from a few months up to a year or two, depending on the program.
However, unlike the credential for registered dietitians, the term “nutritionist” is not legally regulated by the government. Therefore, it’s important to inquire about education and credentials carefully when choosing a nutrition professional and look for a practitioner with experience treating your specific health needs.
Some other clinicians, including physicians and nurses, may also opt to complete a nutrition fellowship after residency training as well. The National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists provides a list of doctors who have studied medical nutrition therapy and passed a board exam to become nutrition specialists.
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