Thompson: Don’t ask doctors for nutritional advice

Madison Thompson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Public health and the health care system have taken great strides to combat the spread of infectious disease. Heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, diabetes and cancer can be found among the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States.

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We’ve seen a new trend emerge over the 21st century. Nearly half of the top causes of death in the U.S. fall into the category of lifestyle diseases. 

The simple fact is doctors don’t get paid to give advice about how to live and eat healthy; they’re paid to perform procedures and write prescriptions.

On average, doctors receive barely 20 hours of nutrition training over the course of their four years of study. The lack of urgency is shocking when you take into account that plant-based diets are commonly used to reverse the symptoms of heart disease and diabetes.

The president of the American College of Cardiology has come out in support of plant-based diets as a means for disease stagnation and reversal.

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, only 27 percent of medical schools have a required course in nutrition. Medical doctors are also not required to have any nutrition training prior to acceptance into medical school. The understanding is that patients who need more information on nutrition will be referred to dietitians.

Elizabeth McEvoy, a registered dietitian and Master of Public Health student, comments that RDs must complete a four-year program, a 1200-hour internship and hold a Master’s degree starting in 2024. 

“RDs have knowledge in everything from the exact metabolism of every micronutrient, nutritional needs in different disease states and counseling skills to help facilitate tailored nutrition-related behavior change,” McEvoy said. “While physicians may be well versed in the realm of nutrition related to their speciality of personal interest, RDs are special because they only focus on specific nutritional needs of their patients.”

Part of the issue is the lack of time allowed per patient visit, as well as doctors’ limited knowledge and resources

Doctors do not necessarily need the same rigorous training as dietitians. It would be counterproductive given the complex nature of human physiology and biological processes.

Doctors don’t get paid to give advice about how to live and eat healthy; they’re paid to perform procedures and write prescriptions.

We need a sector of medical doctor education dedicated specifically to teaching nutrition. Dietitians are an integral part of the healthcare team, but doctors need to be constantly updated with the same information so both are on the same page.

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Doctors are a trusted source of information, and because of this, their lack of knowledge is contributing to the burden of disease. Physicians should be part of the solution, not the problem.

Doctors should not only recognize their lack of knowledge in this particular subject area, but given the shift in our population’s health problems, we need to make structural changes to accommodate this.

We have to raise the question of what role pharmaceutical industries play in funding medical schools and benefiting from financial institutions by gearing medical education towards treatment as opposed to prevention.

Medical schools tend to focus on hard sciences like chemistry, biology and physics. While we can’t discount the importance of understanding and mastering these subjects, we should focus on creating more well-rounded doctors by offering more courses in ethics, nutrition, public health and the humanities.

This point is particularly frustrating knowing some physician groups are actively fighting against more nutrition training.

Plenty of Colorado State University students plan to attend medical school after undergraduate. As the future of the healthcare field, part of the responsibility for this change to take root should lie on the demands of students, but changes from the top-down should not be discounted.

This points to the larger issue of shifting the medical community culture away from strictly hard sciences towards more holistic medicine. Lifestyle changes are powerful, and it would be wise for the medical community to focus on implementing those moving forward.

We should not doubt the power of western medicine and pharmacological interventions, but we need to recognize its shortcomings. Nutrition education is a prime example, and the longer we ignore it, the more we are only hurting ourselves.

Madison Thompson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online @heyymadison