A doctor is not a nutritionist: Look beyond doctor’s advice

Is a doctor a useful source of nutrition advice? Basically, no… well, it depends.

But first, let’s get this out of the way: nutritionist.

A nutritionist is a professional specializing in food, diet and nutrition, offering advice and guidance to individuals or groups. While the term may not be regulated everywhere, in certain states in the U.S., specific educational and credentialing requirements must be met to use the title legally. Nutritionists may work in various settings, providing personalized nutrition plans, dietary counseling and nutrition education. Though the terms dietitian and nutritionist are sometimes used interchangeably, dietitians typically have more extensive education and training in the field. In short, a dietitian is a nutrition expert with official credentials, while a nutritionist might have knowledge but not necessarily the same level of official training or regulation.

A physician is not your best source of nutrition advice because physicians are untrained in nutritional science.

By physician, I’m referring to your typical allopathic physician (who practices conventional Western medicine). Other physicians like chiropractors and naturopaths are more highly trained in nutrition science. This is because nutrition and holistic approaches to health are typically emphasized more in the curriculum of chiropractic and naturopathic medical schools.

When illness strikes, many rely solely on their physicians for dietary advice, unaware that physicians are not trained in nutrition. Historically, physicians have received little, if any, training in nutrition. These days, there’s increased focus on the need for nutritional education for physicians.

Depending on their specialties and inclinations, some physicians are more educated about nutrition than others, but it’s a mistake to assume your physician is versed in nutrition ─ just like it’s a mistake to assume your physician is a chemist, or that they’re knowledgeable about pharmaceutical preparations and pharmacology. Sure, doctors may have some knowledge of these things, but doctors are doctors; chemists are chemists; pharmacists are pharmacists. Though related, medicine, chemistry, pharmacology and nutrition science are not the same.

It’s not your doctor’s fault. Your doctor is busy being a doctor, maybe even a surgeon, too. It takes many years of training to become an expert in nutritional science. While dietitians and other nutritional authorities are pursuing these credentials, doctors are becoming doctors. Dietitians are trained to provide nutrition advice. Doctors are trained to diagnose and cure. Two distinct kinds of training. Two vastly different career paths.

So, we shouldn’t expect doctors to have expertise in nutrition science and the intricate mechanisms of their medical specialties — at least not equally. Yet so many health problems are related to diet. So, nutrition training for physicians needs to be top of mind.

Physicians’ lack of training in nutritional science is a well-documented issue. Despite the vital role nutrition plays in overall health, many medical schools and residency programs provide limited education on nutrition. As a result, many healthcare providers lack the knowledge and skills needed to effectively counsel patients on dietary matters. This gap in training has been recognized by various health organizations, and efforts are underway to incorporate more nutrition education into medical curricula, but this remains an ongoing challenge in the healthcare system.

From time to time, I’ve asked a doctor or physician’s assistant (PA) for nutrition advice, but their response is not the final word for me. Misinformation from doctors and PAs has come my way a few times. So, I don’t solely rely on them because they may not always have the answers.

One time, I asked a PA if I could take a certain supplement that I suspected would be contraindicated for me. Instead of saying, “I don’t know,” he said it was okay to take. When he didn’t respond with conviction, but instead was tentative, I knew his understanding was a guise, a transparent pretense and choice to engage me in game of charades. Sigh. His ambiguous response prompted me to do some checking. It turned out the supplement wasn’t appropriate for me, so I chose not to take it.

Doctors are amazing. They know a lot. They do a lot. But a doctor is not a nutritionist. You’d be better served by seeking the advice of nutrition experts as well as your doctor unless your doctor has expertise in nutrition. In a perfect world, your physicians collaborate with a registered dietitian or other nutrition expert to advise you on dietary guidance.

Certain specialists may have deeper insights into particular food categories compared to non-specialists. For example, while not specialists, cardiac surgeons generally grasp the fundamentals of nutrition and its impact on cardiovascular health. They can offer sound dietary guidance to patients. However, like other healthcare providers, cardiologists hold varied views on dietary approaches. This is why some cardiologists endorse keto diets for specific patients, while others advocate for vegan diets across the board.

The physician is not the nutrition authority. RDs, Holistic Nutrition Consultants and other scholars are the experts in nutrition science with expertise and authority to dispense nutrition information and dietary guidance.

The healthcare professionals featured in the Holisticnutritioness.com Experts and Oils series …

Dr. Neal Barnard | Dr. Joel Fuhrman | Dr. Mark Hyman
Dr. Joseph Mercola | Dr. Bobby Price | Dr. Andrew Weil

… and others like them are the exceptions. These experts all have deep interest in and reverence for holistic healthcare and have deep understanding of nutritional science beyond their MDs, DOs or PhDs.

If you’re managing a medical condition and under a doctor’s care, always adhere to your doctor’s dietary guidance. But for unanswered questions or unaddressed nutritional concerns, seek advice from a qualified expert authorized to provide dietary recommendations and nutrition advice. Also, some RDs have specialty certifications; so, if you have kidney issues you may want to visit an RD with a specialty in renal nutrition. For other issues, you might see an RD who specializes in pediatrics, sports dietetics, oncology, gerontology or diabetes education.

Friends, when seeking nutrition advice, you need to consider the source and critically evaluate the information provided. Seek out the most reliable dietary resources to help you understand any medical conditions you may be managing and learn how to eat appropriately for them. Exercise caution with unsupported claims, fad diets or recommendations that appear too good to be true. Reliable sources of nutrition information include scientific research, reputable health organizations and government agencies focused on public health and nutrition. PubMed is one source. There are many others. Information is everywhere. Get what you need.

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