By Tommy Tobin
Many chronic conditions, such as obesity and diabetes, are related to diet and nutrition. Although many diet-related diseases are highly correlated with poor health outcomes, U.S.-trained doctors receive little or no training in nutrition. A new report published last week by the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (“FLPC”) aims to address this knowledge gap by recommending increased nutrition education in undergraduate, graduate, and continuing medical training.
With its report, Doctoring Our Diet: Policy Tools to Include Nutrition in U.S. Medical Training, Harvard’s FLPC focused on integrating “nutrition as an essential component of U.S. medical education” and allowing doctors “to support better outcomes for individual patients and to address the most common and costly health risks facing our country.”
Unfortunately, there is a lack of attention to nutrition education in medical training. As one recent headline put it, “[y]our doctor may not be the best source of nutrition advice.” Other researchers writing in a medical journal were less reserved: “It cannot be a realistic expectation for physicians to effectively address obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hospital malnutrition, and many other conditions as long as they are not taught during medical school and residency training how to recognize and treat the nutritional root causes.”
The authors of the Harvard FLPC report identified several medical education stages in which to increase nutrition training and recommended policy mechanisms to address the lack of nutrition training:
- For undergraduate medical education, amending accreditation standards to require nutrition training and offering additional grant funding to create nutrition education programming.
- For graduate medical education and board certifications, requiring nutrition education in medical schools and incorporating nutrition-related questions in required examinations.
- After formal medical education, states should integrate nutrition education into continuing education and require—or strongly encourage—physicians to take nutrition education courses as part of maintaining their license.
The report’s authors note that “increased nutrition education for doctors at every stage of their career can ultimately improve outcomes for individual patients, advance population health, and change the healthcare landscape for the better.”
The FLPC report’s publication comes during a dust-up within nutrition science concerning a recent article in the Annals of Internal Medicine on guideline recommendations for meat in consumer diets. According to the New York Times, the article and its associated guidelines “raise uncomfortable questions about dietary advice and nutritional research, and what sort of standards these studies should be held to,” and has faced substantial criticism from public health advocates. It is possible that the increased funding and training in nutrition recommended in the FLPC report could encourage further medical research into nutrition and its role in disease prevention and mitigation.
Given the important association between diet and nutrition and many chronic health conditions, the FLPC report makes considerable sense. Time will tell how palatable the authors’ recommendations are for the relevant decision-makers.