Food is medicine

What you eat is among the most important factors for your health. But far too few health care professionals take the time to discuss preventative measures like healthy diets with their patients, said Dr. Marion Nestle.

She’s planning to spotlight that issue in an upcoming address at the upcoming “Food is Medicine” virtual conference, hosted by the University of Utah College of Health and the Utah Center for Community Nutrition (UCCN).

Nestle is an internationally recognized consumer advocate, nutritionist, award-winning author, and academic who specializes in the politics of food and dietary choice. She will deliver the keynote, “Diet & Health: What Health Professionals Should Tell Clients About Food And Nutrition,” at the conference on Sept. 11.

Health care professionals, their patients, and our diet

Marion Nestle
Photo by Bill Hayes

Nestle’s address will focus on the impact health care professionals can have on preventive health simply by talking to their patients about diet. Unfortunately, Nestle said, far too few health care professionals do that.

“Doctors are lucky if they have 15 minutes with the patient,” Nestle said. “That’s not enough time to find out what people eat or talk about what they ought to be eating.”

That’s an especially pressing issue, because many patients who go to the doctor have issues that center around eating.

“There’s an enormous need for physicians to advise patients about diet, but there’s not time to do it,” Nestle said. “There’s a considerable amount of evidence that the people who have the most influence in changing people’s diets are their [health providers].”

Examining the links between food and health

The link between food and health is one of the major study areas for the UCCN. The UCCN was founded at the University of Utah in 2017 to combine research being done on nutrition with community outreach in order to improve the health of Utahns, said Dr. Julie Metos, UCCN executive director.

Part of that outreach is the “Food is Medicine” conference for health care professionals and students. The conference is also open to anyone who wants to learn more, Metos said.

Other conference session topics will range from practical food preparation to how lower-income individuals can meet their nutritional needs, and other wellness and integrated health practices and sessions geared toward health care professionals, Metos said.

Starting simply for lasting effect

“We live in a pretty toxic environment when it comes to nutrition; the things available to us in offices, schools, churches… the way we set up our neighborhoods with fast food,” Metos said. “Our environment doesn’t encourage us to eat healthy.”

Nestle said the rise of “ultra-processed foods” is one recent contributor to poor health. Ultra-processed foods are a specific category of junk foods that have been associated with gaining weight, chronic disease, and higher mortality.

Ultra-processed food is easy to recognize:

  • It’s industrially produced
  • Its ingredients are things you don’t recognize and can’t be bought in grocery stores
  • You can’t make it in your home kitchen

For example, Nestle said, corn on the cob is not processed. Frozen or canned corn is minimally processed, but corn snack chips are ultra-processed and unhealthy.

People might be tempted to go cold turkey and quit meats and processed foods altogether. Keeping up such a rigorous diet might be difficult to maintain, Metos said. Smaller steps are the key to success.

“Can you do one meal a day that doesn’t have meat?” Metos said. “Or a meatless Monday? All those things can make a pretty big change.”

The conference aims to help attendees walk away with sensible and attainable nutrition goals:

  • Choose options that are plant-forward
  • Choose beverages wisely
  • Be mindful of portion sizes
  • Practice mindful eating, and more

While the problem of our modern diet is complicated, Nestle said the solution is simple.

“Michael Pollan could put it in seven words,” Nestle said. “‘Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.'”