If you’re a health and nutrition nerd (and if you’re reading this blog, you probably are), you may have had a frustrating experience that goes something like this: a friend mentions an ailment … say, irritable bowel syndrome, or high blood sugar. You start to suggest how a change in diet could relieve the ailment, only to have the friend interrupt with, “But my doctor said …”
In that situation, I’m tempted to reply, “Yeah? And what does your plumber say? Because your plumber has probably spent as much time studying nutrition as your doctor.”
To be fair, I also used to believe doctors are experts in nutrition. When I wrote for a small health magazine in the 1980s, we regularly called doctors for quotes on dietary issues. Most of the major media reporters still run out and find a doctor to comment on any story that involves diet and health. After all, doctors know almost everything about how to stay healthy, right?
Heh-heh-heh. Yeah, a lot of us have learned that’s not true. Doctors aren’t trained to keep us healthy; they’re trained to treat us when we’re sick or injured. The treatments nearly always involve drugs or surgery or both –- and I’m grateful both are available when they’re needed. Take drugs and surgeries out of the equation, and I’d be hobbling around with a bad left leg and barely using my left arm. I’d also be deaf in my left ear, which wouldn’t exactly help with all the sound and music mixing I’ve been doing lately for the Fat Head Kids film.
So thank goodness for what medical doctors do well.
It was only when I got to know some doctors personally while making Fat Head that I learned how little they’re taught about nutrition in medical school. Dr. Mike Eades knows as much about diet and health as anyone I’ve met, but he explained to me that he learned it on his own, long after medical school. Same goes for Dr. Bill Davis, Dr. Eric Westman, Dr. Jay Wortman, etc., etc. If nutrition is taught at all in medical school, it’s usually a brief detour through the usual artercloggingsaturatedfat! and hearthealthywholegrains! nonsense. Then back to learning about drugs and surgery.
In my previous post, I quoted Chris Kresser on why that approach leaves so many patients these days unhappy with their medical care:
Conventional medicine evolved during a time when acute, infectious diseases were the leading causes of death. Most other problems that brought people to the doctor were also acute, like appendicitis or gall bladder attack.
Treatment in these cases was relatively simple: the patient developed pneumonia, went to see the doctor, received an antibiotic (once they were invented), and either got well or died. One problem, one doctor, one treatment.
Today things aren’t quite so simple. The average patient sees the doctor not for an acute problem, but for a chronic one (or in many cases, more than one chronic issue). Chronic diseases are difficult to manage, expensive to treat, require more than one doctor, and typically last a lifetime.
I ended that post by saying that if people are going to trust the health-care profession again, it’s the profession that needs to change, not the rest of us. I’m happy to say some future doctors feel exactly the same. As the BBC reported in an online article, medical students want more training in … wait for it … nutrition. Here are some quotes:
Medical students say they currently learn almost nothing about the way diet and lifestyle affect health – and they should be taught more. They say what they are taught is not practical or relevant to most of the medical problems they see in GP surgeries, clinics and hospitals.
A leading GP estimated that up to 80% of his patients had conditions linked to lifestyle and diet. These included obesity, type 2 diabetes and depression.
Exactly what Kresser pointed out: most people these days visit doctors for chronic conditions that can’t be eliminated with a pill. But diet can sure help in many cases.
While reading the BBC article, I thought about a girlfriend I had more than 30 years ago. Sheri was sweet and pretty, and we were together for more than a year. I remember driving her several times to a doctor to be treated for irritable bowel flare-ups -– she of course didn’t want to drive while doubled over in pain. Each time she had another attack, her doctor tried some different combination of drugs. Each fix was temporary.
When I thought of her today, it was one of those if only I knew then what I know now moments. She was lactose intolerant, so she drank soy milk and poured it on her morning cereal. We both thought grains were health food and ate plenty of them.
I’ll bet you dollars to donuts (and you can keep the donuts) she could have cured the irritable bowel syndrome with a change in diet. Plenty of people have. In fact, when we had a premiere party for Fat Head back in 2008 (on my 50th birthday), the sound mixer thanked me for changing his life. After watching the film, he gave up the cereals and breads, started eating bacon and eggs for breakfast … and the irritable bowel syndrome that had made him miserable for years vanished.
If he hadn’t seen Fat Head and talked about diet and health with me during mixing sessions, lord only knows how much longer he would have continued taking drugs and continued suffering. I was delighted to hear watching the film gave him the answer, but of course he shouldn’t have heard it from me. He should have heard it from his doctor.
You may be familiar with Dr. Michael Mosely, who created the 5:2 diet that’s popular in the U.K. Here’s what he told the BBC about nutrition and medical school:
“Unfortunately it’s not part of the traditional training. At medical school I learnt almost nothing about nutrition. And I have a son at medical school and it’s again not part of his key curriculum.”
But that’s changing:
A hotbed of the new revolution is Bristol University where, in 2017, third year medical students Ally Jaffee and Iain Broadley founded Nutritank.
It’s an online organisation created for and by medical students to share nutrition science research and organises events and lectures on campus. This summer, it will welcome GP, author and podcast host Dr Rupy Aujla to Bristol to lead the first UK course in culinary medicine for medical students.
From one society in Bristol, Nutritank has now spread to 15 other student-led groups at universities across the country.
Student-led groups … well, that figures. Meaningful change tends to bubble up from the bottom, not rain down as a gift from on high. But however it’s happening, if more young doctors and doctors-to-be are insisting on being educated about nutrition and health, that’s a very good sign indeed.
Personally, I’d love to have a doctor someday who’s read more about nutrition and health than I have.