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Primary care providers promote healthy eating habits

Nov. 24, 2023, 9:03 a.m.

Original article published in The Paper


Good nutrition is the cornerstone of overall health and well-being. Nutrition can be defined as the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth.

It plays an important role in preventing chronic disease, maintaining a healthy weight, and supporting physical and mental function.

Primary care providers (PCP) such as doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants are well-positioned to identify nutritional concerns and provide guidance to patients.  

The impact of nutrition on health is often overlooked. At every stage of life, our bodies rely on food for optimal function, growth, and repair.

A balanced diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, is associated with reduced risk of chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

By integrating nutrition counseling within primary care, healthcare providers have the opportunity to empower patients to make informed choices about their diet and lifestyle, thus improving overall health outcomes and addressing the root cause of many health issues. 

The following are examples of common nutrition-related topics that can be addressed by PCPs: 

PCPs can encourage patients to follow a balanced heart-healthy diet. In a society where convenience and ultra-processed foods have become overconsumed, PCPs can direct patients toward resources that provide education to assist patients with making healthier choices. 

Hydration: PCPs can identify dehydration from lab testing, and then educate patients on the importance of adequate hydration. 

Nutrient deficiencies: Lab testing to identify common nutrient deficiencies including but not limited to vitamin B12, vitamin D, Iron, and Folate, then providing recommendations or prescriptions for supplements and dietary modifications to correct the deficiency.  

Malnutrition and unintended weight loss: There are many causes for malnutrition including decreased appetite, limited access to food, trouble chewing, swallowing, or gastrointestinal problems.

PCPs are often the first healthcare providers to identify these nutrition-related concerns and are in the position to make appropriate referrals to address the root cause of the malnutrition. 

Behavioral Change Support: Patients’ mental health status often indirectly impacts nutrition choices.  If mental health is not addressed, overall health suffers. Upon assessment, the PCP is able to make an appropriate referral for counseling or treatment. Examples include depression, eating disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Referral to registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN): When more extensive nutrition education and counseling needs are identified by the PCP, a referral to an RDN is recommended. RDNs have specialized knowledge in nutrition and can provide more in-depth dietary assessments, and assist with meal planning and behavior modification strategies. 

Emily Cannon, is a registered dietitian at Burke Primary Care.

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