Physicians receive inadequate nutrition education, study calls for policy changes

By Danielle Masterson

- Last updated on GMT

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Related tags diet Nutrition Education

Poor diet is the leading risk factor for early death worldwide. Yet nutrition is insufficiently incorporated into medical education, according to a new report from the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC).

The study, which details harm and calls for policy revisions, found that the average medical student spent less than 1% of lecture hours on nutrition.  Doctoring Our Diet: Policy Tools to Include Nutrition in U.S. Medical Training​ has policy solutions aimed at bridging the gaps between nutrition-related diseases, climbing healthcare costs, and the lack of adequate nutrition education for physicians.

This report comes on the heels of a different report, which also found that medical education is lacking effective nutrition education.

“Despite the overwhelming evidence proving diet is vital to good health, medical professionals receive almost no education on diet or nutrition,”​ says Emily Broad Leib, Director of FLPC. “Leveraging existing funding sources, such as Medicare, and adopting other policy interventions to require nutrition education throughout medical training can improve outcomes for patients, mitigate the immense costs of preventable diseases, and change healthcare for the better.”

A missed opportunity for nutrition education

Globally, 11 million deaths annually are attributable to poor diet, making it the leading risk factor for death across the world. Even though registered dietitians are experts in the field of nutrition, patients don’t come to them first. Instead, it’s primary care physicians they consult for dietary-related disease help. Yet studies show only 14% of physicians feel adequately trained to counsel patients on nutrition. 

Andrea Wong, senior vice president, scientific & regulatory affairs, Council for Responsible Nutrition, told NutraIngredients-USA: “CRN strongly advocates for increased nutrition science education in the medical community, especially as the majority of Americans cite medical doctors as their most reliable source of information on dietary supplements. We are aware of the critical role that nutrition plays in health, and recognize there is often a gap in nutrition science education in the medical community. As consumer interest in making supplementation part of their overall health and wellness regimen continues to grow, CRN supports possible policy changes to make nutrition education programs a necessary component of the curriculum for the medical community.”

Without properly equipped doctors, the health of the population is not only at risk, but so is healthcare spending. Federal Medicare spending accounts for almost 15% of all federal spending and is expected to surpass $1 trillion in the next decade. The report points out that Medicare is also the single largest funder of residency programs and graduate medical education—a critical stage of physician training which currently lacks any nutrition education requirements.  

The report mandates nutrition-focused education for physicians, by detailing several step-by-step recommendations for increasing nutrition education in undergraduate medical education (UME), graduate medical education (GME),  as well as expanding nutrition in continuing medical education (CME) and bolstering nutrition-related questions in step and board examinations.  

Policy Solutions

Doctoring Our Diet ​provides actionable policy solutions to increase nutrition education at every stage of medical training. The policy recommendations are addressed to key decision makers, including congress and other federal agencies, state agencies and legislatures, as well as nongovernmental accrediting or testing bodies. The report presents a range of policy solutions to ensure that physicians understand the relationship between food and health and can properly advise their patients. 

The report concludes by saying “This report presents an initial roadmap of policy options to provide nutrition education to physicians throughout their time in medical school, residency, and beyond. To address the epidemic of chronic, costly, and preventable diet-related diseases in the US, physicians must be prepared to understand and counsel on nutrition as a critical healthcare tool. Including nutrition education at each stage of medical training can better equip physicians to counsel patients about good preventive health and effective disease management. This guide encourages greater action to promote physician competency and training on nutrition and diet-related diseases, through both voluntary initiatives and mandatory policies administered by decision makers at the federal, state and local levels. This report recognizes that the feasibility and attractiveness of these interventions may vary depending on the decision maker and the political climate. Nevertheless, 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.”



Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic

Doctoring Our Diet: Policy Tools to Include Nutrition in U.S. Medical Training

Authors: Emily M. Broad Leib, et al.

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