Nutritional education is health care — let’s make it official

In light of its ambitious plans to improve the country’s health and food security, the White House will host a conference on hunger, nutrition and health this month – the first of its kind in more than 50 years.

While it’s long overdue, health professionals like me are heartened that the Biden administration has brought this issue to the table. They have set themselves the noble goal of ending hunger and promoting healthy eating and physical activity in the United States by 2030, so fewer Americans suffer from diet-related diseases such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Not only is this a nationwide problem, it’s also affecting the nation’s capital: Obesity affects more than half of all adults in Washington, DC.

Although some are skeptical about achieving such ambitious goals in less than eight years, with the right commitment from Congress to our communities, it can be achieved. There are concrete steps that—just like diet and physical activity—put us on the right path to better nutrition and health. If our lawmakers are ready to seize the moment, big systemic changes can be made.

This begins with the passage of new laws that require providers to include nutrition education in health care.

Nutrition is the basis of health. According to the US Government Accountability Office, the nation’s leading causes of death are directly linked to poor diet and nutrition. Although healthcare providers – let alone the public – recognize that nutrition is the primary treatment for many chronic diseases, most of us do not have direct access to nutritional advice, largely because our healthcare providers lack nutrition education. This lack of training makes starting the conversation all but impossible and limits referral to specialized services such as registered dietitians and certified nutritionists. Another barrier to involving nutritionists is poor insurance coverage, which can be overcome by a referring physician with adequate nutrition education.

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Fortunately, in May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill (H.Res.784) to facilitate federal oversight and require “sound education in nutrition and diet sufficient for physicians and health professionals to make nutritional interventions and dietary recommendations meaningful.” into medical practice.” If this becomes law, it will help embed nutrition education into the required medical curriculum nationwide and ensure future physicians have the nutrition knowledge to better serve their patients.

But even if the bill passes the Senate and gets signed by the President, implementing nutrition education nationwide will take time, investment, and coordination.

To do this, we also have to work from the ground up.

It is important for healthcare professionals to talk about nutrition with their patients; however, all the exercise in the world will be useless if people don’t have access to healthy food. One of the best ways to provide healthy food to our communities is to provide the many existing community-based organizations working to improve food security and nutrition with the resources they need to amplify their efforts.

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More than 38 million people — over 10 percent of the nation — live in food-insecure households, according to the latest data from the US Department of Agriculture. In the country’s capital, one in ten residents – a third of them children – are food insecure.

How is this possible in an obesity epidemic? Obesity is a lack of food security that manifests itself in inexpensive, high-calorie foods that are largely deficient in vitamins and minerals. For safe nutrition, foods that promote well-being and prevent and treat disease must be readily available.

Fortunately, many community-based organizations, embedded in both urban and rural communities, work diligently to fight hunger and provide culturally appropriate nutritional advice that is effective for and well-received by their communities. Rather than reinventing the wheel with new organizations or programs, government at all levels should support the growth of already successful organizations.

Another step we can take is to incentivize healthy choices for businesses and consumers. Too often we focus solely on preventing unhealthy food choices, e.g. B. Sin taxes on junk food and soda instead of encouraging healthy food choices. Why not subsidize healthy foods instead of, say, corn, which is processed into high fructose corn syrup and added to ultra-processed foods that lead to weight gain and contribute to chronic disease and healthcare costs?

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If people can get good food cheaper, they will buy it. While deterrents can be effective and appropriate in certain cases, subsidizing healthy food — at local groceries and convenience stores, as well as farmer and mobile markets — can remove cost barriers for people searching for healthier alternatives, while also targeting food insecurity for diet-related people chronic diseases.

While systemic change often takes time, there are system-level changes we can make now. Ultimately, millions of lives are at stake. Whether individual or collective, life-changing health goals require great effort, investment, perseverance, and patience. They can be achieved, and we will all be healthier for it.

Leigh A. Frame, Ph.D., MHS, CERT’20, is executive director of the Office of Integrative Medicine and Health, co-founder and associate director of the GW Resiliency & Wellbeing Center, and professor of medicine at George Washington University.

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