You May Know More About Nutrition Than Your Doctor

April 15, 2010 by · Comments Off 

by Samantha Weinstein

Perhaps you’ve noticed it on our playgrounds or in our classrooms. Take a look around our shopping malls or our restaurants. It’s hard to ignore – America has a serious weight problem.

Over one-third of Americans today are considered obese. Cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are on the rise. Research points to a whole food, plant-based diet as the most effective way to control weight and prevent and even reverse disease, yet the majority of medical schools fail to offer adequate nutrition courses within their curriculum.

“Nutrition has a greater ability to maintain and restore health than any other surgery or drug in medicine. Nutrition covers many different ailments and produces results surprisingly quickly. It should be part of the curriculum, no question,” said Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D and author of “The China Study,” which synthesizes more than 27 years of research detailing the connection between nutrition and chronic diseases.

Medical school students receive on average about 21 credit hours of nutrition, according to a National Research Council report in 1985.  By comparison, an undergraduate nutrition major at Cornell will receive 25-40 credit hours or about 250-500 contact hours; registered dietitians will have more than 500 contact hours.

The bulk of these nutrition hours are taught in the first year of medical school, and are incorporated into other basic science courses.

Research by The Clinical Administrative Data Service of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) indicates that from 1997-1998, only 33 medical schools (26%) had a required nutrition course.

Not much has changed since the report.

Natalie Pon, a first year student at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas interviewed at 15 medical schools and recalls that none had a required nutrition class. There are no required nutrition courses at UT Southwestern.

In 1997, The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) developed the Nutrition Academic Award Program (NAA). The program distributed 5-year grant awards to medical schools to strengthen nutrition education, with an emphasis on preventing cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. From 1998-2005, 21 schools were awarded grants, including UT Southwestern.

“The funds aren’t there anymore but you can still see the influence in those 21 schools,” said Dr. Joanne Carson, Ph.D, R.D., and Professor of Clinical Nutrition at UT Southwestern.

The Clinical Nutrition course at UT Southwestern is a first year elective offered for zero credits.  It is a 12 hour course and students receive an acknowledgement on their transcript for taking it.

“I don’t think you would see graduate students say ‘I got a strong nutrition education at Southwestern,’ but it is more than at other schools,” said Dr. Carson.

Karen de Olivares, Ph.D, assistant to the Dean, and Pre-Med and Pre-Health Advisor at Southern Methodist University says that medical classes such as biology and physiology teach the underlying foundation of what effects food have on the body.

In his first book, The China Study, Dr. Campbell writes extensively on the subject of nutrition education in medical schools, as well as drug companies’ role in the problem. In it he exposes the affair between pharmaceutical companies and medical schools that has been going on for decades.

According to Campbell, pharmaceutical companies spend huge amounts of money to educate doctors about their drugs. He estimates the cost to be over $100,000 per doctor. In his book, Campbell cites multiple ways drug companies are involved in medical education, providing “meals, entertainment, and travel; educational events, which are little more than drug advertisements; and conferences, which include speakers who are little more than drug spokespeople,” among others.

 “It is a huge problem!” said Dr. Campbell. “Medical education and drug companies are in bed together, and have been for quite some time.”

Dr. Carson says pharmaceutical companies might fund research and get involved when students are in residency and fourth-year clinic duty, but they are not directly involved in education. “At UT they don’t get to touch medical students,” she says.

Americans spend $200 billion dollars a year on prescription drugs, and that figure is growing at a rate of 12 percent every year, according to data collected by IMS Health Inc., an international healthcare data and consulting company.

 “Using drugs to make people healthy is one strategy versus nutrition. Nutrition is the antithesis of drug use,” Dr. Campbell said.

Every year, 100,000 Americans die from correctly taking their prescribed medication, which makes it one of the leading causes of death in America, according to data analysis by Jason Lazarou, MSc; Bruce H. Pomeranz, MD, PhD; and Paul N. Corey, PhD.

Following the results of his research, Dr. Campbell believes that a whole food, plant-based diet is the best defense against major diseases and even has the power to cure diseases more effectively than drugs, and without the side-effects.

 “He’s an extremist and he’s not very acclaimed in the medical community,” said Dr. Carson.   

Dr. Campbell is currently Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University. He has more than seventy grant-years of peer-reviewed research funding and authored more than 300 research papers.

Carson, Campbell, and Olivares all agree that medical schools’ course curriculums are so loaded that there is no interest in adding more to them.

 “I definitely see where they are coming from,” said Pon, the medical student. “There is too much to learn, and not enough time.”

Dr. Carson believes that putting more emphasis on nutrition in medical schools could help the obesity situation in the U.S.

“More people are becoming obese and are getting heart disease. Primary care physicians need to feel comfortable advising on basic nutrition, and also when to refer a patient to a Registered Dietitian,” said Carson.

Whatever educational materials there are on nutrition are supplied by animal food and drug industry representatives, according to Dr. Campbell.

It is almost worse to get poor education than no education at all because doctors think they know what good nutrition is, but they don’t and they are giving false information to patients, he said.

“Bad food is the root of so many people’s problems,” said Pon. “I guess that is what dietitians are for.”