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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Educating doctors and medical students about vegan nutrition

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With more research showing the correlation between vegan eating and health, these doctors and medical professionals are redesigning medical school programmes with an increased emphasis on nutrition.

Many people look to the advice of their general practitioners when it comes to the foods they eat. If doctors promote plant-based eating, one can only conclude that more of the world will begin to go vegan.

Many of the 10 to 15 million doctors in the world don’t necessarily have the proper level of training when it comes to recommending proper nutrition. Of those who take the time to expand their knowledge post-graduation, only a fraction of those are vegan themselves.

When I was diagnosed with high triglycerides, the doctor immediately handed me a prescription to get my numbers within a safe range. “If you don’t take the pills,” he began to caution me, “you suffer the risk of pancreatitis and will require a medical procedure to follow.”

As I walked out of the doctor’s office that evening, I realised that I wasn’t given any advice on what lifestyle and dietary changes I can make to help bring those numbers down naturally.

This forced me to question if I was making the right decision. I didn’t want to rely on Google to give me medical advice about a potentially serious condition. So this got me thinking more about what we can do as a vegan movement to make sure more medical doctors have the proper education when it comes to helping us through nutrition.

To find the answer to these questions, I took to the internet to figure out how much training nutrition doctors receive in different parts of the world and what various people and organisations are doing in order to fix the missing gaps in the system.

How much nutrition education do doctors receive?

plant based nutritionAccording to Harvard University’s School of Public Health, only one in five American medical schools require their students to take a course in nutrition. This is despite their extensive research proving the correlation between poor diet and many preventable diseases.

In total, a student in one of these medical programs only receives a grand total of 23.9 hours of nutrition education during their five to six years as a student. Even 88% of instructors state that there is a need for more nutrition education during these courses of study.

In the UK, the General Medical Council publishes general guidelines and standards when it comes to medical school programmes. But it is the responsibility of the medical school itself to set its own curriculum.

Fortunately, there are student groups stepping up to take leading roles in educating their peers about the importance of nutrition. This is the first step of a much larger movement.

Two medical students at Bristol University founded nutritank, an innovative information hub of food, nutrition, and lifestyle medicine. Their mission is to promote the need for greater nutrition and lifestyle medicine education within healthcare training and throughout the members of the public nationwide.

Through working groups on campus, similar organisations such as Nutritank educate our future doctors about nutrition outside of their general courses of study.

These types of movements put forward by medical students lead to changes within the schools they study at. As a result, the University of Cambridge plans to double its course content on nutrition.

It’s through these type of initiatives that doctors of the future will have a greater understanding of how diet and plant-based eating can have a positive impact on health.

In order to see more of these doctors recommend people to go vegan, there need to be more studies published that not only talk about the benefits of nutrition, but also involve the latest research in plant-based nutrition.

While the world is not completely there yet, these students are laying the groundwork for future doctors and professors to work more plant-based nutrition courses into university curriculum.

But this still leaves us with the question: what about the countless doctors who have already graduated from medical school and are currently serving patients? What work is being done to get them to give the proper advice too?

Educating doctors about nutrition

medical school veganAs I mentioned earlier, my current doctor went straight to prescribing pills instead of providing me information about what diet choices caused my high triglycerides in the first place. To get some answers, I spoke with a medical doctor who promotes whole-foods plant-based eating, Dr Caldwell Esselstyn.

During a conversation I had with Dr Esselstyn, he told me that ever since the days of Hippocrates, there has been a basic covenant of trust between the patient and the caregiver. “The caregiver, whenever possible, will share with the patient what is the cause of the illness,” he states.

In layman’s terms, this translates to a doctor providing information about proper diet and exercise to help address the root cause of conditions such as hypertension, cholesterol, and diabetes.

The traditional approach of prescribing pills and procedures has nothing to do with the causation of the illness. Dr Esselstyn further informed me that today, with cardiovascular medicine, the causation of the illness is not being addressed.

His decades of experience also concludes that medical school training and postgraduate training don’t currently provide enough information about nutrition.

Fortunately, five years ago, he was invited to become a member of the American College of Cardiology’s nutrition committee. The purpose of this committee is to educate cardiologists about the causation of the illnesses they’ve been designated to treat.

In the years since he joined, there has been an increase in information provided to cardiologists about the right dietary guidance to provide patients, including “a diet based on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, reduced saturated fat… and a low-sodium diet,” according to the American College of Cardiology’s website.

While pills and procedures still play a role in traditional medicine — and these organisations still recommend a reduction of processed meats — it’s amazing to see the progress that’s been made so far when more doctors are starting to recommend plant-based and vegan food.

As the work of these men and women progress, I am personally looking forward to seeing more doctors around the world discuss with their patients the impact one’s diet has on health and wellness.

But it still leaves the door open for more research studies to be conducted, exploring any correlation between plant-based diets and health.

Andrew Alexander
Since 2011, Andrew has been a marketer helping vegan-friendly businesses launch their brands into the marketplace. In 2017, he started his own business, VeganHealthPack.com, which encourages people to be more aware of the effects food has on their health. In his free time, he enjoys going on day hikes, eating at new restaurants, scuba diving, and backpacking through other countries. As a side project, he is filming a documentary called Creating a Vegan World which outlines the work we are doing behind the scenes of the plant-based movement.