Helping Patients Navigate Nutrition: 4 Tips For Physicians

Nutrition is the bedrock upon which good health is built, yet doctors learn little about nutrition in med school. When patients come into the office struggling with healthy eating, keeping a healthy weight, or other common concerns, then, most doctors quickly shuffle them over to nutritionists and dietitians. Doctors live by simple mantras about calories in and calories out, eating less and exercising more, and leave the rest to patients.


Unfortunately, when facing a national obesity crisis, food deserts, and minimal individual knowledge about food and nutrition, recommending that a patient see a nutritionist isn’t a real solution. All this does is move the burden around. We want t make sure your health is getting attention. It’s time for doctors to get real about patient nutrition, educating themselves and patients. The buck stops here.

Start Young

The earlier we start talking about good nutrition, the better off patients will be – and kids today are savvier about food than past generations. A recent study known as Food2020 surveyed parents about their children’s eating habits and found that kids are leading the way in seeking healthier options. The study showed that 40% of children look at labels and 30% prefer local or organic food. This is good news for future health, but do kids really know what they’re asking for? Kids need to be educated in nutrition from a young age.

Pediatricians should spend time talking to families about how to read nutrition labels, the structure of a healthy meal, and the role nutrition plays in growth and future wellness. Just be careful not to draw a line between “good food” and “bad food,” as this dichotomy can contribute to disordered eating habits.

Provide Structure

Telling patients what they should be eating won’t work unless they have some guidance, but unfortunately, many doctors stop at “eat healthier.” One way doctors can improve patient outcomes is by supplying recipes to patients. For example, a doctor who wants a patient to make smoothies for breakfast could offer several balanced smoothie recipes.

Your blog is also a great platform for supporting healthy eating. Medical offices may share a recipe once a week or a catalog of recipes for different health needs, such as meals for diabetic patients, weight loss-oriented meals, or low cholesterol recipes. We don’t learn how to eat the way we learn math or how to read a map. As a doctor, you need to teach your patients this life skill.

Understand Limitations

One of the most dangerous assumptions that doctors make when it comes to patient nutrition is about the types of foods available to any individual. Millions of Americans live in food deserts where they don’t have access to fresh vegetables; a significant proportion of children are fed directly through WIC, which sets guidelines for government covered foods. With this in mind, doctors should not assume patients can revise their eating habits entirely at a moment’s notice.

As a doctor, it’s important to educate yourself about government programs like WIC and food stamps, so that you have a sense of the budgetary and dietary restrictions patients may be working within. Consider reading Leanne Brown’s Good & Cheap, a guide to eating on food stamps. It’s hard to do and doesn’t necessarily allow for great diversity, but as a doctor, you need to meet patients where they are. Guides like this can help you understand their perspective on nutrition.

Talk About Interactions

When talking about healthy eating with patients, don’t overlook concerns about medication interactions and other medical limitations. Assuming patients know how to take their medications safely – or that they will get all necessary information from their pharmacist – is likely to lead to disaster as few patients fully understand medication inserts. Instead, review your patients’ charts and be specific. The more information you can provide, and the more straightforward that information is, the less likely your patients are to make serious dietary errors.

What can happen if you don’t talk clearly about medication interactions and other restrictions? Consider the case of the grapefruit. If you, as a doctor, tell your patient to eat more fruits and vegetables, they’re likely to consider grapefruits to be fair game. Unfortunately, grapefruits and several related fruits are known to increase blood levels of over 85 medications due to associated metabolic changes. All it takes is one glass of grapefruit juice or opting for a grapefruit for breakfast instead of toast and your patient could end up with dangerously high medication levels in their system.

Patients benefit most from clear communication, straightforward and detailed warnings, and supportive information like recipes, charts, and guidelines – and this information should be provided both in person and through digital platforms. Eating healthy isn’t easy and even doctors aren’t trained well in the finer points. It’s time we step up to the plate – literally.