Filling medical students’ nutrition knowledge gap could help improve disease treatment, says EIT Food director
19 Jul 2021 --- There is a “systemic deficiency” in understanding the link between nutrition, health and sustainability in medical education, according to Maarten van der Kamp, director of education at EIT Food.
“Despite diet being the biggest single risk factor for preventable diseases in the world, some medical students can spend fewer than two hours on nutrition throughout their entire degree,” he tells NutritionInsight.
Moreover, Van der Kamp highlights diet as a key driver of diabetes, heart disease and other non-communicable diseases. Filling this knowledge gap could help transform global food systems, treat and prevent disease and illness.
Consequently, EIT Food has launched a free online course called “Nutrition for Health and Sustainability,” which aims to build medical students’ understanding of the food-disease relationship.
The consequence of the education gap
According to a 2019 study published in The Lancet, nutrition is insufficiently incorporated into medical education, regardless of country, setting or year of medical education.
“A lack of nutrition education in medical studies means that doctors and professionals often have to teach themselves about current healthy guidelines and how they can be applied to different population groups,” Van der Kamp explains.
“It also means that medical professionals might struggle to advise about foods that are essential for health and well-being and how they can help treat and prevent disease.”
A British Medical Journal (BMJ)-published study from last year revealed just over a quarter (26 percent) of UK doctors were confident in their nutrition knowledge.
Low confidence separates nutrition responsibility
There was some recognition of the importance of a collaborative approach in the BMJ study, yet 28 percent of UK doctors preferred to get specialist advice rather than address nutrition themselves.
Van der Kamp echoes these results by highlighting the role of different medical and other health professionals in patient care have traditionally been separated: The responsibility for nutrition has been the remit of dietitians and nursing staff rather than doctors.
“As a result, the extent to which doctors can mobilize nutrition is not always apparent, nor when to refer for specialist advice. This means that doctors’ confidence levels in advising patients or in working with national dietary guidelines tend to be low compared with other topics.”
Notably, 74 percent of BMJ-surveyed doctors gave nutritional advice less than once a month, citing lack of confidence (62 percent), time (64 percent) and knowledge (75 percent) as the main barriers.
Reasons to take action
The positive consequences of educating doctors in nutrition are multitude. Due to their “special health authority,” Van der Kamp outlines that doctors could play a key role in informing and persuading people to change their eating habits during consultations and through other channels.
“The global obesity epidemic, the rise of personalized medicine and increased understanding of the microbiome are also likely to converge into a situation where doctors can prescribe food as medicine, giving them influence over the decision, implementation and confirmation stages as well,” he says.
Linking personal and planetary health will also be an “increased motivator” to rethink diets, Van der Kamp adds. “If medical doctors had better knowledge of the link between food, health, nutrition and sustainability, they could play an active role in transforming our food system.”
According to a 2020 survey from Innova Market Insights, 53 percent of global consumers would consider plant-based food alternatives because they are healthier, while 32 percent affirm they are better for the planet.
Meanwhile, the market researcher points out a 12 percent average annual growth in F&B launches tracked with a claim related to sustainable sourcing or farming (Global, CAGR 2015-2020).
A crash course in nutrition
EIT Food’s Nutrition for Health and Sustainability online course mainly targets medical students, but is also suitable for medical professionals interested in an up-to-date analysis of topical nutrition debates.
Attendees will learn about the possible biological, social and psychological causes of unhealthy eating patterns, and interpret the importance of evidence-based nutrition both for the good of both people and the planet.
The course team stems from a collaboration across disciplines and institutions from Europe, the US and the Middle East to bring together the latest ideas on how food affects the body, society and the planet.
By Anni Schleicher
To contact our editorial team please email us at email@example.com
Subscribe now to receive the latest news directly into your inbox.