Dietary changes are recognized as a leading risk factor for premature death and disability in the United States, yet medical students spend an average of just 19 hours studying nutrition over the course of their four-year medical school.
That statistic, said Stephen Devries, MD, needs to change.
“Nutrition just wasn’t recognized as a priority in medical education,” said Dr. Devries, executive director of the nonprofit Gaples Institute and associate professor of nutrition at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “Medical educators often report that they just don’t have enough time in the curriculum, and my answer is: what deserves more attention than the major risk of premature death and disability?”
dr Devries addressed that question, explaining in a recent episode of AMA Update why doctors should put more emphasis on good nutrition – for themselves and their patients.
dr Devries remembers the early days of his career as a cardiologist, treating recurring patients with acute heart problems.
“We patched them up, sent them out, and very often they came back,” he said.
It was then that he realized that medicine and technology couldn’t be the only option to stop these recurring problems. Over the course of his career, he has observed a decline in death rates from cardiovascular disease, but in recent years he said the rate has plateaued despite continued technological advances.
“What is the reason?” he asked. “It’s the increasing prevalence of overweight and obesity and the associated type 2 diabetes.”
This growing prevalence cannot be offset by physicians and other healthcare professionals alone, said Dr. Devries, but they can certainly help. He knows doctors often have little time to spend with patients, but he believes a few steps can make a big difference.
“It is entirely possible for clinicians to at least emphasize that while taking their medication is a critical part of their healthcare [patients] will never achieve optimal health without more attention to diet and lifestyle,” he said.
The Gaples Institute has made it easier for healthcare professionals to acquire the nutrition knowledge they can’t acquire during medical school with a collection of courses available on the AMA Ed Hub™.
Earlier this year, the Gaples Institute released an updated edition of Nutrition Science for Health and Longevity: What Every Physician Needs to Know. The course provides unbiased nutritional fundamentals based on current and clinically relevant research. It also touches:
- The influence of diet on COVID-10.
- Medical self-sufficiency.
- The dangers of ultra-processed foods.
- Counseling for patients with food insecurity.
dr Devries said that to date, more than 3,000 medical students and clinicians have taken the nutrition course, and 97% of those who took the test reported what they learned will help them transform their practice.
“The goal of the course is not to steer doctors or patients toward a particular diet,” he said. “Our goal is to teach solid, evidence-based principles. Then we encourage the doctor to use them individually, as appropriate for each patient.”
Also included in the course is conducting a quick nutritional assessment for a patient. dr Devries said the course teaches how healthcare professionals can work with their patients once the assessment is complete to explain any shortcomings and understand patients’ priorities going forward.
“Having the knowledge is not going to have any effect unless you apply it and apply it in a very busy clinical setting,” said Dr. devries “This is what we set out to do to help clinicians do that.”
AMA Update covers health topics that affect the lives of physicians and patients. Hear from physicians and experts on public health issues, advocacy, scope and more—because speaking matters. You can watch each episode by subscribing to the AMA’s YouTube channel or the audio-only podcast version, which also includes informative presentations and in-depth discussions.