A New Prescription for Health | Commentary

Posted March 19, 2015 at 5:00am

By Neal Barnard, M.D., and Cameron Wells, M.P.H., R.D.  

What if your doctor gave you a prescription that would help you lose weight, lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol, and reduce the risk of several forms of cancer? Even better, the side effects are all beneficial: increased energy, productivity, and an elevated mood. The catch? The prescription isn’t for a pill. It’s for healthful foods and regular physical exercise. Every day.  

More than 94 percent of doctors would like to prescribe this approach, but only 14 percent feel comfortable doing so. It stems from a lack of nutrition education, which most medical schools don’t teach. While doctors are regarded as the most credible source of information about diet and health, more than half rate their nutrition knowledge as inadequate.  

This explains why less than 25 percent of doctor office visits today include counseling on diet and exercise.5 This is unacceptable and — in the field of preventive medicine — borders on malpractice. As rates of lifestyle diseases skyrocket, it only makes sense that medical training follows suit.  

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, agree. The bipartisan duo has introduced the Expanding Nutrition’s Role in Curricula and Healthcare (ENRICH) Act, a bill that will grant federal funding to help medical school students learn about dietary patterns and lifestyle habits for disease prevention.  

By reallocating funds from the Health Resources and Services Information budget, ENRICH allows up to 30 medical schools to integrate nutrition and physical activity education into existing curricula for three years, starting in 2016. The results speak for themselves: The 10,000 students who received 25 hours of nutrition instruction in 2005, as a result of a previous grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, rank their nutrition knowledge higher than peers who went without this federally supported coursework.  

Right now, less than 30 percent of medical schools maintain baseline nutrition education recommendations set forth by the National Academy of Sciences. And fewer, just one in eight, offer coursework on physical activity.  

The federal funding doesn’t require medical students to become nutrition experts or exercise aficionados. Twenty-five hours — half a work week — is all it takes to help narrow the ever-expanding nutrition gap in medical education. In fact, studies show that doctors who spend an extra 5.5 minutes with at-risk patients to talk about nutrition help them lose 5 pounds, lower saturated fat intake and lower LDL cholesterol levels.  

From a clinical perspective, five minutes and 5 pounds serve as a catalyst for change — a low investment of time and just enough weight, in some cases, to eliminate the need for statins, insulin, and beta-blockers.  

With 7 in 10 deaths preventable through diet in our country, a new prescription for health is the remedy we need.10 At the very least, it lays the groundwork for a new medical mindset—one that benefits doctors and their patients.  

Neal Barnard, M.D., is the president and founder of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Cameron Wells, M.P.H., R.D., is the acting director of nutrition education.

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