Expert dietary tips that every doctor should know

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published March 17, 2021

Key Takeaways

  • Because in-depth nutrition counseling may not be within the professional wheelhouse of some physicians, the advice of a registered dietitian could be a help their patients.

  • Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggested focusing on eating more nutritious foods rather than cutting back on unhealthy ones. Steps towards this goal can be made incrementally, but it may be best to ditch the “diet mentality.”

  • Along with consulting with a dietician, physicians can refer to dietary guidelines for further guidance they can pass on to patients.

Successfully practicing medicine requires a robust knowledge base, and physicians demonstrate vast individual competency in a gamut of clinical duties. One key aspect of health, however, likely benefits from a collaborative approach: nutrition.

According to a review published in Advances in Nutrition, “Nutrition plays an important role in health promotion and disease prevention and treatment across the lifespan. Physicians and other healthcare professionals are expected to counsel patients about nutrition, but recent surveys report minimal to no improvements in medical nutrition education in US medical schools.”[]

Because in-depth nutrition counseling may not be within your professional wheelhouse, it could be wise to work with a registered dietitian to help your patients. MDLinx asked Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, about some dietary tips that can help patients and health professionals alike. The advice was eye-opening.

Eat more, not less

According to Maples, getting motivated to change eating habits can be hard.

"Healthier eating changes like cutting back on salt, saturated fat, sugar, and calories may seem so daunting that we put off trying."

Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN

"That can leave us feeling guilty for not doing what we think we should do,” she added. "Try another route to better health. Instead of focusing on what food to avoid, focus on adding more nutrition-packed foods that Americans don’t get enough of, including whole grains; low-fat or fat-free dairy (eg, milk, cheese, yogurt, soy beverages); and fruits or vegetables.”

If you’re not sure where to begin, you can start by learning about five healthy foods that are packed with nutrients and will leave you feeling satiated. And if you’re inclined to troll the internet for nutrition information, be sure to do your research and take your advice from credible sources. There’s a lot of nutrition misinformation floating out there.

Start with small steps

Maples also stressed that changes in eating habits be made incrementally.

“Once you decide to make an eating change, focus on better, not perfect,” she said. “Break that big behavior goal into small, gradual steps. As you make progress, your step-by-step success naturally builds intrinsic motivators that help you maintain the new behaviors.”

She provided the following example: “Most Americans like fruit but don’t actually eat fruit on any given day—even though experts recommend four servings of fruit a day. Instead of deciding to start eating four fruits a day, just focus on adding one more than you already eat. Slice a banana over cereal. Pick up a fruit and yogurt parfait when you stop for gas. Throw an apple or a box of raisins into your work bag. Sprinkle blueberries on a side salad. Pour a glass of orange juice. Gradually, over time, you can work toward achieving four servings a day. But for now, just add one.”

And speaking of fruit, you might want to read up on the surprising number of medical myths surrounding this important food.

Ditch the diet mentality

Unfortunately, 95% of the time, weight loss is followed by weight gain, and this cycle perpetuates, according to Maples.

"Weight goes up and down and up again, leading to poorer nutrition and an even higher body weight."

Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN

Instead, consider a weight-neutral approach that’s been shown to produce outcomes for better nutrition and health. Models like Satter Eating Competence and Tribole’s Intuitive Eating put body weight on the back burner to focus on relearning body cues that tap into our internal regulation of eating. These are proven ways to get healthier and make peace with food while still eating the foods what you want,” she said.

Eat together as a family 

Simply getting together is an important dietary habit, and keep in mind that not every family meal has to be perfect, noted Maples.

"Eat what you’re eating now, even pizza, fast food, or chicken nuggets. Just sit down and eat together."

Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN

"Do it as often as you can," she continued. "Make it a priority. If dinner time is hard to coordinate, eat together at breakfast. If weekdays are difficult, eat together on weekends. Turn off the TV, phones, and devices to be present with the family. Keep the conversation pleasant."

Maples also had some tips for picky eaters. “Relax by practicing Division of Responsibility, where parents decide the what/when/where of meals and kids decide how much to eat. The rewards of family meals are tangible. Children who eat with their families are more likely to make healthier food choices, like drinking milk and eating vegetables.

"Adolescents who grow up with family meals engage in fewer risky behaviors."

Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN

It’s also worth noting that picky eating can carry over into adulthood and lead to health issues, according to studies, but finicky eaters can learn strategies to overcome this behavior.

Dietary guidelines

In addition to the guidance of a professional dietician, physicians may want to consider doing further research on proper nutrition to gain knowledge on good eating habits they can pass on to their patients.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 were recently released, providing a treasure trove of accessible dietary information there, for physicians and patients alike.

What this means for you

There are many approaches to eating in a nutritious manner. The specifics of many of these strategies may not be readily apparent to most physicians and are better instituted with the help of a registered dietitian. Fortunately, collaborative models for care exist, and when counseling your patients on diet, it is helpful to enlist the help and guidance of another professional. Consulting dietary guidelines could also be helpful in your work with patients on their nutritional health.

Read Next: Are we biologically designed to be frugivores?
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