By Sagan Schultz, Co-Founder of WellWell and MD/MBA Candidate at NYU
The words “doctor” and “clueless” are not usually heard in the same sentence. That is, unless we are talking about nutrition — a crucial public health issue, in which inadequate professional training at US medical schools leaves the majority of medical students feeling malnourished, and patients hungry for reliable guidance.
Thanks to escalating rates of diet-related chronic diseases like childhood obesity and type II diabetes, children in the current generation might be the first ones to live shorter lives than their parents. Beyond the crippling effects of these diseases on mental health and academic success, the financial burden to society is outrageous. The USDA estimates that $87 billion in medical costs, an amount that could be used to make medical school education in the US free for the next 35 years, could be saved each year by healthier eating.
When I started medical school four years ago everyone I knew began asking me for medical advice. While I anticipated questions about heart attacks and brain tumors, what I got was more about everyday life.
“Is it bad if I eat after 7PM?”
“Avocados have so much fat, should I cut them out?”
“Why is red wine considered to be healthy?”
I realized that people routinely look to healthcare professionals for guidance about diet and nutrition. Shockingly, one study found that 86% of first year interns believed that they lacked the proper training to have such conversations, making the unique position of physicians to educate patients about healthy eating as useless as a $5 bodega-purchased umbrella.
Over 15 years ago, determined to tackle this concern, the Nutrition Academic Award (NAA) program published the Nutrition Curriculum Guide for Training Physicians. By laying down concrete objectives on topics such as the importance of nutrition in disease prevention, the authors hoped this guide would be used to plan and implement change in medical school curriculum.
But hope does not always lead to change. As a future healthcare provider, I’m embarrassed by association: I know many in the medical field who choose 5-Hour-Energy drinks over nutritional hydration and would potentially starve to death were it not for Seamless Delivery. How can they counsel an obese patient on the importance of diet, when they are so misguided with their own? The countless hours we spend studying how our bodies breakdown fats and carbs far outweigh the time allocated for learning how to choose and recommend which of those fats and carbs benefit us and our patients. One study showed that only 33% of interns felt confident that they could interpret a food label, a skill now being taught in middle school.
That’s not to say medical students think nutrition is unimportant. In fact in the same study, 94% believed that talking to patients about nutrition was an obligation, and 92% agreed that personalized, doctor-to-patient nutrition advice could significantly improve diet. The message is clear: the current investment in nutrition education is inadequate and inconsistent with student and physician awareness.
At the end of my first year, I helped create a pilot program that trained students as health coaches to educate patients on making positive behavioral changes like eating nutritious foods, losing weight, and quitting smoking. As a team, we defined realistic goals and used motivational interviewing techniques to encourage adherence to meeting these goals. Not only did we help our patients lose weight and control their blood sugar, but we more importantly reinforced nutritious eating as a vital lifestyle change with immense long-term health benefits.
Programs like this one, based on motivational interviewing techniques and behavioral change, should be required in all four years of medical education. Nutrition education deserves, at minimum, the same attention as cardiology or learning to tie surgical knots. And there is no excuse for this to be optional — it’s undeniably irresponsible.
Nutrition education is not a “specialty,” nor is it a “bonus.” It’s a non-negotiable responsibility for any healthcare provider who actually cares about their patients and delivering value to our healthcare system.
If we, as healthcare professionals, are not educated on nutrition — the most fundamental driver of health — how will we ever shift our focus from treating these physically, mentally, and economically debilitating diet-related diseases, to preventing them?
Sagan Schultz is the CEO and co-founder of WellWell, a clinically grounded, cold-pressed recovery juice for athletes and people with active lifestyles. He holds a B.S. in Neuroscience from NYU and is currently there as an MD/MBA candidate with summer plans to work in healthcare consulting. Prior to starting WellWell, Sagan spent the last five years as a sommelier at Terroir Wine Bar in NYC learning from Paul Grieco. Fueled by ambition, good coffee, and fish tacos, you can find him buzzing around the streets of lower Manhattan on fixed gear.
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