It’s hard to miss the headlines and breaking news feeds on the latest medical studies showing the health benefits of plant-based eating patterns: Vegetarian diets lower the risk or colorectal cancer. Dementia can be delayed through a healthful diet, cognitive training, and physical exercise. Folic acid — a plant-based product of foliage, or leafy greens — boosts heart health. And that’s just in the past few days.
As a primary care specialist with a degree in nutrition, I’m a champion of dietary interventions — particularly in light of all the latest research. I regularly use this approach help my patients lose weight, lower blood pressure, and stabilize blood sugar. When it comes to beans or beta-blockers, I go for the plant-based prescription. However, I often wonder how many of my colleagues regularly do the same. Or even know this option is effective — let alone discuss this with their patients.
It takes 19 years, on average, for studies to make their way into clinical practice. It shows. Based on a recent survey, just 13 percent of doctor office visits for chronic disease include counseling on diet and nutrition. With a burgeoning obesity epidemic, we don’t have that long to wait.
The root of the problem often starts with our medical training. Less than 30 percent of medical schools today meet federal recommendations for nutrition education. Despite spending a minimum of 11 years in training, most doctors lack formal training in diet and nutrition.
The recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences are easily attainable — just 25 hours of nutrition education, which can be integrated into coursework or practiced in residency. This timeframe is short enough to make the learning manageable, but long enough to impart lasting knowledge.
With research showing that food choices can prevent risk factors for cancer or toxically assault our systems, nutrition is no longer complementary or a subject to bypass. It’s imperative. The good news is that for time-crunched clinicians, spending just five minutes talking to your patients about nutrition can produce lasting results. I see it every day.
I’ve seen a hemoglobin A1c drop from 15 to 7.5 percent in six months with a combination of medication and dietary changes. I’ve seen cholesterol levels halved in patients who were committed to changing their health through diet and lifestyle alterations. Moreover, with dietary counseling I have helped many people NOT start on diabetes medications.
As we upgrade our patient communication skills, become adept at mobile health, and turn our focus toward precision medicine, I hope we can integrate nutrition into our educational framework, starting in medical school. This should become a cornerstone topic in all levels of medical education.
“Let food be thy medicine” is no longer cliché. In terms of longevity, it’s a powerful lifesaving prescription.
Angie Eakin is a family medicine resident.