A Time for Change: Nutrition Education in Medicine

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published an article entitled “Simulation of Growth Trajectories of Childhood Obesity into Adulthood.” The models in the study projected that 57.3% of today’s children will be obese by age 35.1 The bleak predictions of future health trends such as these reaffirm the need for health professionals to be knowledgeable about nutrition.

Patients expect physicians to be sources of information related to nutrition. In fact, 61% of respondents to an American Dietetic Association (now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) survey stated that they believe physicians are a “very credible” source of nutrition information.2 At the same time, though, in a study of internal medicine interns, 86% of respondents admitted to being inadequately trained to provide nutritional counseling. This inadequacy starts early in a physician’s career, with 51.1% of medical school graduates in 2005 reporting that they received insufficient nutrition education during medical school.3

Take the field of cardiology, for example, where a recent study found that, among a cohort of 930 cardiologists, 90% believe their role includes providing patients with basic nutrition information. In the same group of physicians, though, 90% stated that they had received little-to-no training in nutrition during their fellowship, 59% stated that they had received no nutrition during internal medicine training, and 31% reported no nutrition education in medical school.4 Simply put, the perceived role of physicians and the training they are given don’t match up.

This is not a matter of self-reported opinion either, because curricula also lack dedicated nutrition training, and this is not a new phenomenon. In 1962, the American Medical Association (AMA)’s Council on Foods and Nutrition held a conference pertaining to the “inadequate recognition, support and attention” given to nutrition education in medical schools. The council acknowledged that nutrition is intimately involved in the pathogenesis of chronic and degenerative diseases and that the medical curriculum was lagging with respect to advances in nutrition science. 5 The interrelatedness of medicine and nutrition was recognized by the council as more than the just the treatment of isolated nutrient deficiencies.

In 1976, the AMA conducted a mail survey to better understand the status of nutrition education in U.S. medical schools. When 102 medical schools responded to the surveys, fewer than 20% of schools reported requiring a nutrition course.6 The schools cited lack of funds, inadequate number of physicians trained in clinical nutrition, and limited amount of time available in the curriculum as limitations for increased nutrition education. This forty-year-old survey also highlighted the increased interest in nutrition from students and faculty at these institutions.7 We can only assume this interest has since grown.

The scientific conferences and congressional hearings in the decades leading up to the 80s drew attention to the need to improve nutrition education in U.S. medical schools. As a result, the National Research Council Committee on Nutrition in Medical Education published recommendations in 1985 stating that a minimum of 25 to 30 classroom hours during preclinical years should be allotted to covering the topics in nutrition that were underscored by the committee.6 For the past two decades, research spearheaded by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has tracked the state of nutrition education in U.S. medical schools every four years. Unfortunately, the data show no sign of changes in the average hours required in nutrition education since 2000. The most recent survey during the 2012-2013 academic year included 121 medical schools, with an average of 19 hours (SD =13.7) of nutrition education in their curriculum. The survey showed that 71% of medical schools failed to meet the minimum recommendation of 25 hours, 36% provided 12 or fewer hours, and 9% provided none.8

Current nutrition education is evidently not translating into practice when only 10% of primary care physicians include weight counseling for patients, and fewer than half of obese and overweight patients are advised to lose weight.9 Primary care practitioners overwhelmingly support requiring additional training so that they will be better informed about the care they provide to their patients with obesity.10

The Association of American Medical Colleges has recently declined to incorporate nutrition into its new blueprint for medical competencies.11 The 2013 American Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) program requirements for Graduate Medical Education in Cardiovascular Disease neglects to mention nutrition. 12 This continues to be the case in the most recent iteration of the ACGME requirements along with the ACGME for Internal Medicine.13,14 These examples show that both medical schools and graduate medical education have yet to legitimize the value of incorporating nutrition training through their competencies.

Three programs that have become recognized for their innovative approach to nutrition curriculum at medical schools include:

  1. The Nutrition in Medicine (NIM) Project – since 1995 this program has aided in the development and distribution of nutrition curriculum for medical students through comprehensive online courses free of charge. The curriculum is a 29-unit curriculum covering basic science content along with clinical applications through cases. About 50% of medical schools actively use the NIM curriculum and the flexibility of the curriculum has allowed for varied implementation at these schools .15 A more recent initiative by the NIM team is the Nutrition Education for Practicing Physicians for residents, fellows, and practicing physicians. These online modules differ from the medical school resources through the greater level of clinical detail and practical applications (
  2. Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives – The Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have collaborated as a strategy to enhance physician ability and motivation for nutrition counseling through interactive cooking experiences. The program uses teaching kitchens to demonstrates how nutrition science can be translated into nutritious meals. This initiative has shown to be successful in changing physicians’ dietary practices and their inclination to offer nutrition counseling at a 3-month follow-up.16 Currently, over 6,000 health professionals have taken the course. This initiative has expanded to 32 organizations located in 16 different states, plus Italy and Japan. The kitchens are active in universities, hospitals, and corporate buildings. (
  3. Tulane University School of Medicine’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine – this is the first teaching kitchen implemented at a medical school. The center trains medical students and professionals through culinary medicine classes in the form of electives and seminars as well as continuing education. The idea is grounded in the idea that the knowledge to cook nutritious meals encourages patients to buy vegetables and fruits that they previously avoided because they didn’t know how to prepare them. Tulane offers an institutional and away rotation at Johnson & Whales University in Providence Rhode Island where students can participate in hands-on culinary and culinary nutrition classes as well as an academic research project related to medical nutrition therapy. Medical students can also opt to take an 8-class culinary medicine elective during their first or second year of school. (

The physician is the head of the care team and is responsible for directing care and allocating personnel and resources. Physicians see many patients when they are most in need of nutrition guidance. Therefore, physicians should be able to assess and recognize nutrition-related problems, and appropriately coordinate patient care. Let us hope that these programs are increasingly adopted in medical education so that physicians will be better equipped to address the health of their patients.



  1. Ward ZJ, Long MW, Resch SC, Giles CM, Cradock AL, Gortmaker SL. Simulation of Growth Trajectories of Childhood Obesity into Adulthood. N Engl J Med. 2017;377(22):2145-2153. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1703860.
  2. Nutrition and You: Trends 2008.; 2008. files/media/trends and reviews/nutrition and you/trends_2008_are_you_already_doing_it.ashx. Accessed November 30, 2017.
  3. Vetter ML, Herring SJ, Sood M, Shah NR, Kalet AL. What do resident physicians know about nutrition? An evaluation of attitudes, self-perceived proficiency and knowledge. J Am Coll Nutr. 2008;27(2):287-298. Accessed November 30, 2017.
  4. Devries S, Agatston A, Aggarwal M, et al. A Deficiency of Nutrition Education and Practice in Cardiology. Am J Med. 2017;130(11):1298-1305. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2017.04.043.
  5. Council on Foods and Nutrition. JAMA. 1963;183(11):955. doi:10.1001/jama.1963.03700110087015.
  6. National Research Council (US) Committee on Nutrition in Medical Education. Nutrition Education in U.S. Medical Schools. Washington, DC; 1985. doi:10.1007/BF02427708.
  7. Cyborski CK. Nutrition content in medical curricula. J Nutr Educ. 1977;9(1):17-18. doi:10.1016/S0022-3182(77)80110-6.
  8. Adams KM, Butsch WS, Kohlmeier M. The State of Nutrition Education at US Medical Schools. J Biomed Educ. 2015;2015:1-7. doi:10.1155/2015/357627.
  9. Kraschnewski JL, Sciamanna CN, Pollak KI, Stuckey HL, Sherwood NE. The epidemiology of weight counseling for adults in the United States: a case of positive deviance. Int J Obes. 2013;37(5):751-753. doi:10.1038/ijo.2012.113.
  10. Bleich SN, Bennett WL, Gudzune KA, Cooper LA. National survey of US primary care physicians’ perspectives about causes of obesity and solutions to improve care. BMJ Open. 2012;2(6):e001871. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2012-001871.
  11. Englander R, Cameron T, Ballard AJ, Dodge J, Bull J, Aschenbrener CA. Toward a Common Taxonomy of Competency Domains for the Health Professions and Competencies for Physicians. Acad Med. 2013;88(8):1088-1094. doi:10.1097/ACM.0b013e31829a3b2b.
  12. Devries S, Dalen JE, Eisenberg DM, et al. A deficiency of nutrition education in medical training. Am J Med. 2014;127(9):804-806. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2014.04.003.
  13. ACGME Program Requirements for Graduate Medical Education in Cardiovascular Disease (Internal Medicine). Accessed November 30, 2017.
  14. ACGME Program Requirements for Graduate Medical Education in Internal Medicine.; 2017. Accessed November 30, 2017.
  15. Adams KM, Kohlmeier M, Powell M, Zeisel SH. Nutrition in medicine: nutrition education for medical students and residents. Nutr Clin Pract. 2010;25(5):471-480. doi:10.1177/0884533610379606.
  16. Eisenberg DM, Myrdal Miller A, McManus K, Burgess J, Bernstein AM. Enhancing Medical Education to Address Obesity: “See One. Taste One. Cook One. Teach One.” JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(6):470. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.2517.


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How can we implement better health behaviors in cancer survivors?

Lifestyle interventions targeted at obtaining/maintaining a healthy body weight and/or incorporating physical activity and healthy eating habits have great potential in improving outcomes in cancer survivors. Cancer diagnosis is a “teachable moment” wherein many patients are highly motivated to make changes (1). Furthermore, a balanced diet and moderate exercise can improve prognosis, quality of life, physical function, and survival across the cancer continuum. As such, groups such as the Amercian Cancer Society, National Comprehensive Cancer Network and the American College of Sports Medicine have released lifestyle guidelines for cancer survivors.

However, implementing changes in individuals and healthcare systems is challenging, to say the least. This is a recent topic covered by Karen Basen-Engquist and a number of colleagues as part of a special Issue of Obesity (Transdisciplinary Research on Energetics and Cancer)(2). Their article provides a 6-point agenda for translating research into clinical and community action, as follows:

  1. Increase the availability of different types of activities for weight management, nutrition counseling, and physical activity. One size will never fit all when it comes to improving health. Individual goals/preference, resources, and logistics all come into play, and cancer-specific programs may be needed.
  2. Improve screening and referral to lifestyle interventions. A system for evaluating and triaging patients for health programs should be developed. Importantly, an individual’s physical status, health needs, and goals should be considered.
  3. Improve the health care provider’s ability to screen, assess, and refer survivors for lifestyle programs. Oncology providers have a powerful role in helping cancer survivors; however, they often do not feel confident in screening, giving advice, or administering recommendations for lifestyle-related constructs. Implementation of processes such as the 5As (Ask, Advise, Assess, Assist, Arrange), which has been successful in tobacco cessation (3) and obesity management (4) might prove beneficial.
  4. Expand the support of oncology-specific professional training and certification. Professional organizations of dietitians, exercise professionals, psychiatrists, and physical therapists have additional certification programs for oncology or are working on developing one for its members. However, professionals with specific expertise in oncology are still greatly needed to address the unique needs of this population.
  5. Expand dissemination and implementation research. Many research programs do not address how a program could be implemented in a real-world setting (external validity). Dissemination of research findings with consideration of the sustainability and generalizability of programs is essential for broader impact.
  6. Advocate for health care policies that support lifestyle services for cancer survivors. Coverage for health programs is highly variable and often has barriers such as large co-payments, no coverage in grandfathered plans, and cost sharing. A potential solution could be incentivizing nutrition and exercise services, although more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of such actions.

As the authors eloquently articulate, the time has come to enable research into action for optimal healthcare in all cancer survivors.


  1. Demark-Wahnefried W, Aziz NM, Rowland JH, Pinto BM. Riding the crest of the teachable moment: promoting long-term health after the diagnosis of cancer. J Clin Oncol 2005;23:5814–30.
  2. Basen-Engquist K, Alfano CM, Maitin-Shepard M, Thomas CA, Schmitz KH, Pinto BM, et al. Agenda for Translating Physical Activity, Nutrition,and Weight Management Interventions for Cancer Survivors into Clinical and Community Practice. Obesity 2017; 25, S9-S22.
  3. Siu AL, Force USPST. Behavioral and pharmacotherapy interventions for tobacco smoking cessation in adults, including pregnant women: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. Ann Intern Med 2015;163:622-634.
  4. Rueda-Clausen CF, Benterud E, Bond T, Olszowka R, Vallis MT, Sharma AM. Effect of implementing the 5As of Obesity Management framework on provider-patient interactions in primary care. Clin Obes 2013; 4, 39-44.


At What Point Do We Enact Obesity-Targeting Policies?

How much evidence should be demonstrated before enacting obesity-targeted health policy? This difficult question was debated between two speakers Sunday at ASN’s Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting, as part of the Obesity Research Interest Section Forum, chaired by Andrew Brown, PhD.

The first speaker, Laura Schmidt, PhD, defended the need to set such policies early on. According to Schmidt, one reason we cannot afford to wait for perfect evidence is because the National Nutrition Research Roadmap indicated that the average amount of time that it takes for research to go from bench to bedside/community is 17 years. Dr. Schmidt noted that how research is translated to policy needs to be strategic and carefully considered, the evidence must be robust and systematically reviewed, but that science can only inform, not drive policy decisions. Often it is not possible to enact policy at exactly the specifications that research suggests. For example, a 20% tax on sugar sweetened beverages was indicated to show an effect on sales, but San Francisco couldn’t get a bill passed into law until the tax was reduced below 20%. Standards for evidence are often higher in the scientific community, she said: they utilize systematic reviews, expert panel summaries, and formal guidelines by federal and global agencies. When the results of a large number of different types of studies that use different measures and outcomes point in the same direction (i.e. observational, clinical trials, and mechanistic), we can be confident in the strength of the evidence. Schmidt gave an example of some issues she perceives haven’t reached a body of research big enough to act on yet: taxing 100% juice or diet sodas, even though there is emerging concern on each from the literature. Finally, Dr. Schmidt noted that we need to be concerned with industry funded research as some evidence suggests it may bias conclusions on a topic. To summarize: we should acknowledge the need to translate research in ways that can inform policy and that best practices and standards for evidence-to-policy are shaping up, but that challenges remain, including scientific bias due to conflicts of interest.

As a contrasting perspective, Michael Marlow, PhD, outlined his concerns with setting policies without a very high level of confidence that they will succeed. In other words, caution must be exercised because researchers don’t yet know optimal policies. He outlined his concerns as follows: 1) There are good intentioned hunches over scientific exploration. Confirmation bias and common narratives may lead to policies that don’t reflect reality. 2) Many research methods promote type-I errors, such as P-hacking, often a consequence of tenure and grant requirements and journal editor demands. 3) The quality of dietary data is poor. Dr. Marlow pointed to a study that found that for 95% of a study sample, fast food, soft drinks, and candy had no association with BMI. There are a number of possible interpretations to this: the data sources (diet recalls) may be so seriously flawed that it is ok to advocate laws that only affect 5% of the population. Should we enact policy or wait until data collection is improved? And, 4) There is naive modeling of interventions that goes into estimating policy efficacy. Linear relationships are often assumed between availability of nutrition information and behavioral changes, for instance. Because of what is overlooked, Marlow’s simulations of policy success range from 6.25% with optimistic probabilities of effects to 0.01% with less optimistic assumptions. To summarize: policy proposals need solid theoretical and empirical support, data quality needs more attention and acknowledgement, measures for policy success need major rethinking, uncertainty and unintended effects need acknowledgment, and we need to resist ill-advised albeit good-intentioned policies from citizen pressure.

There is no easy answer to how long we should wait before enacting health policies that target obesity. Translating research to policy is difficult and policy as a natural experiment can help us understand if we can impact obesity. A common thread of agreement is the need to ensure that we have high quality research methods and to reduce bias wherever possible. Perhaps then the question would be easier to answer.


The Path to Policy: ODS Interview

Interview with NIH Office of Dietary Supplements Director Dr. Paul Coates

By: R. Alex Coots

Academia is changing.

Today’s universities increasingly rely on adjunct faculty to teach courses and reserve the coveted full-time academic position for the science superstars. This phenomenon, coupled with decreasing paylines from funding agencies, makes a science career especially challenging to pursue. And that’s not even considering the project difficulties!

The problem has become so pressing that even the NIH has realized it. New initiatives, such as the BEST Innovation Award, aim to ensure that graduate students and post-docs have increased opportunities to expand their skill sets for a future outside of academia.

Policy is one of the many areas that nutrition experts can serve. The current Director of the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), Dr. Paul Coates, successfully made the transition from bench research as a geneticist to a career in science policy. He spoke with me about his career and transition to ODS.

What motivated your interest into policy?
I was curious. For all these years, I had been funded to do research by the NIH and other organizations, but what I concentrated most on was my own research. I was pretty naïve when I came to the NIH, not knowing what life was like for people who worked on the government side. There were plenty of them like me, PhD’s in one setting or another, who had come to the NIH to work as extramural program directors.

What are the important skills or knowledge that someone should have when moving into policy?
One of the things I understood was the importance of making connections. My first job at the NIH was focusing on diabetes research efforts. I learned how to work with other people within an institute, and then gradually in other institutes and beyond to achieve common goals. I think the art of science policy is knowing who else works in this field that you can benefit from, and flip it around and ask “How can I help other people benefit from working together with them?” Recognize the talent that’s out there in other organizations.

What advice would you give to students?
You need to pay your dues as a scientist first. You need to understand the scientific method. You don’t have to spend an eternity in science, but you must have spent some time doing it. Author publications and write grants. My observation is that the people best prepared for this kind of experience “get it” about what a scientist does. They must be prepared to critically analyze data and know what to look for in the literature to inform policy.

What types of projects do the AAAS and Milner fellows work on?
The AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship is beautifully designed to encourage people at different levels of experience in science to work closely with federal agencies to learn about the science-to-policy transition. In ODS, we’re recent partners in that program. Fellows are engaged in projects that my office works on. We have a very active role in translating science into policy, but also in identifying research needs.

The Milner fellowship has a different side to it. Jointly funded by ODS and the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, the Milner fellowship brings in one or two people per year for a two-year stint that will allow them to conduct research in one of the labs at Beltsville. At the same time, they participate at ODS in work on science policy.

How do you see ODS changing in the future?
ODS is getting a little older. A fairly urgent challenge is identifying people who can come up behind us and continue to identify opportunities for research—particularly those that have public health implications— and be committed to help tackle them.


Developing the Evidence Base for Nutrition Recommendations

By Ann Liu, PhD

Systematic reviews are the basis for nutrition policy and guidance, but gaps in the evidence base can impact recommendations. Presenters at the symposium “Creating the Future of Evidence-Based Nutrition Recommendations, Using Lipid Research Case Studies” sponsored by ILSI North America spoke on various aspects that inform the process of developing dietary guidance and its implementation on Saturday, March 28. Major policy and regulatory groups such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Scientific Advisory Committee, American Heart Association, and the Institute of Medicine use systematic reviews as the basis for their decision making, but often the ability to make recommendations can be hampered by a lack of strong evidence.

The process of developing evidence-based reviews, such as the one used by the USDA Nutrition Evidence Library, must be rigorous, transparent, and minimize bias, because these reviews inform federal nutrition policy and programs. At the outset, key systematic review questions are developed which should reflect important decisional dilemmas in public health nutrition guidance.

The next critical step is deciding on inclusion and exclusion criteria, which determines what literature is included in the evidence base. Criteria that may be considered include study design, study duration, size of groups, drop out rates, and the health status of participants. This process is thoroughly documented and transparent so it can easily be determined why a study was included or excluded. The evidence base will go on to be evaluated by expert panels in order to make recommendations and guidances.

How can scientists ensure that their research is included in the evidence base?

– When designing studies, it is important to consider the validity of the study design, the impact of endpoints, and the relevance and feasibility of interventions. Are the outcomes meaningful and are they translatable? If not, what additional information do you need? Researchers can also use the gaps in the literature identified in Nutrition Evidence Library systematic reviews to inform future investigations.
– If studying chronic disease risk, use validated surrogate biomarkers.
– Carefully consider your comparator group. One of the most common reasons studies are discounted from systematic reviews is they did not include appropriate control groups.
– Once you are ready to report your results, follow established reporting standards such as the Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) for randomized clinical trials or the Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) guidelines. This can help ensure that key information is included and is available for data abstraction in future systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
– Participate in the process. Once draft reports such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Scientific Report are issued, there is the opportunity for public comment. Feedback from scientists with expertise is strongly encouraged.