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Need diet advice? Don’t expect much from your doctor

Consumer Reports News: January 04, 2011 09:08 AM

If you made a New Year's resolution to lose weight and are thinking about calling your doctor for advice, hold the phone. Diet and nutrition are among the weakest areas of most doctors’ education in medical school, and few of us pursue further training on our own. So unless your doctor has made a commitment to living a healthy lifestyle, he or she might not have much to offer.

I’m often amazed by how little some of my colleagues know about nutrition. I’ve had dinner with some otherwise brilliant physician friends and colleagues who confess that they can’t distinguish between a carbohydrate and a protein, much less say how many calories are in their dessert or which entrée makes a healthier choice.

Although over the past three decades there have been repeated calls for more nutrition courses in medical curriculums, things are actually getting worse. In the 2008/2009 academic year, only about 27 percent of medical schools met the minimum 25 required hours of nutrition set by the National Academy of Sciences, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. In 2004, about 38 percent of schools did. No wonder most doctors hesitate bringing up weight issues with their patients, even though we know that obesity is a major risk factor for many diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. In fact, studies confirm that physicians don’t feel comfortable or confident counseling patients on nutrition. The truth is that we’re failing our patients when it comes to obesity counseling. And it’s a missed opportunity to make a valuable change in a patient’s health. 

So, while you should certainly keep your doctors informed about plans to change your diet, if they don’t offer much practical advice, ask for a referral to a nutritionist or registered dietitian. Your insurance plan might cover the cost of the visits, and some professionals offer discounts or special promotions.

Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical adviser to Consumers Union

Joel Keehn

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