LIFESTYLE disorders and chronic diseases are gripping our country and are likely to continue growing as our population ages.
Modifiable risk factors contribute to more than 30% of Australia’s total burden of, disease, disability and death. Three in five adults were either overweight or obese and four in five Australians had a chronic medical condition in 2007‒2008
, with the majority having poor nutrition implicated in their pathogenesis.
The annual direct cost to Australia
due to overweight and obesity 10 years ago was $21 billion, and this figure is bound to rise as our population increases.
The solution to tackling chronic and lifestyle diseases is multifaceted but must include policy changes promoting healthy choices and modification of the built environment.
Another factor integral to our nation’s management of chronic medical conditions is nutrition education. Yet, in Australian medical schools it remains haphazard and uncoordinated.
Even though evidence shows that when health care providers incorporate nutrition education into practice patient outcomes improve
, most fail to use such interventions.
Primary barriers to lifestyle counselling include lack of time and false perceptions regarding the effectiveness of such interventions. Doctors also report that they have limited training in how to effectively deliver lifestyle counselling
General practice medical educators
believe current levels of nutrition education in medical schools are inadequate. Internationally the story is similar.
, a study of 451 family physicians found that more than 80% reported their formal nutrition training in medical school was inadequate. In the US
, only 27% of medical schools teach the 25 hours of nutrition coursework recommended by the National Academy of Science.
To counter spurious claims by the CAM industry, doctors need the knowledge, including about nutrition, to provide balanced advice to patients.
Also, as we develop a more sophisticated understanding on how diet influences gut microbiota
causing metabolic and immune diseases, an even greater understanding of nutrition will be necessary for doctors in the future.
In the UK, the lack of nutritional and lifestyle education in the medical curricula has spawned doctor-led campaigns such as Move Eat Treat
. This non-profit group, of which we are members, seeks to fill the gap in the curriculum by providing education to health professionals regarding nutrition, physical activity, sleep, smoking, substance use and mental wellbeing.
In the US, there are calls for more novel strategies
to include nutrition in medical education, with one medical education program already including cooking classes.
In Australia, efforts have been made to address the low level of nutrition medical education in medical school curricula with the development of a web-based nutrition toolkit
, developed by Australian researchers and the Dietitians Association of Australia. However, the main barrier to the implementation of this technology is the view that the medical education curriculum is already full.
In lieu of the integration of formal web-based nutrition education, medical educators involved in problem-based learning in Australia should endeavour to incorporate nutrition into their teaching. This can be done without increased cost, and without encroaching significantly on other critical areas of learning.
Greater familiarity with nutrition information will create further impetus for doctors to counsel their patients. And an added benefit may be an improved diet for the doctor too.
Dr Malcolm Forbes is a medical registrar, NHMRC postgraduate scholar, and adjunct lecturer in the College of Medicine and Dentistry, James Cook University. Dr Harris Eyre is a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Los Angles. He is a psychiatry registrar and is undertaking a PhD through the University of Adelaide.