In the words of Hippocrates the father of modern medicine:
“Let food by thy medicine and medicine be they food.”
In an age that seems dependent on Big Pharma, it’s hard to believe that simply knowing what food to eat and what to avoid could be the answer to conditions that affect thousands of people every day.
Considering Hippocrates’ reign over medicine ended thousands of years ago, it’s safe to say it’s taken us a few years to get back on track. Today, medical nutrition therapy (MNT) is a critical part of disease management. MNT uses diet to trigger the body’s natural healing and protective processes.
What is Nutrition Therapy?
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines medical nutrition therapy as:
“Nutritional diagnostic, therapy, and counseling services for disease management which are furnished by a registered dietitian or nutrition professional…”
Traditional medical providers have always considered diet when evaluating illnesses and creating treatment strategies. During your last annual wellness checkup, your doctor may have suggested you drop a few pounds, but that’s not the same thing as prescribing nutrition therapy to manage or prevent disease.
MNT is a complementary treatment that works alongside conventional medical care. Although Medical Nutrition Therapy is often self-managed, it is monitored closely by a medical professional, typically a dietitian or nutrition counselor.
Medical science didn’t always make nutrition a key component of treatment. Today, though, nutritional sciences are at the heart of a paradigm shift in medical interventions and food is the hero of the story.
The Theory Behind Nutritional Therapy
A 2005 study published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology hypothesized that altering one’s nutritional environment could prevent or reverse disease. The theory is based on four basic premises:
- People are genetically predisposed to certain chronic illnesses.
- The environment impacts gene expression – whether or not the chronic illness becomes active.
- Food is part of the environment that affects gene expression.
- Nutritionally-dense diets can positively influence gene expression.
This partnering of genes and diet gave rise to nutritional therapy by using food to prevent or treat illness. Put simply, food can contribute to the treatment or prevention of disease, especially lifestyle conditions that tend to run in families like:
- Cardiovascular disease
Nutritional therapy may lower your risk of developing a condition – or if you already have it – potentially slow its progression.
Medical nutrition therapy is integral for conditions that affect the gastrointestinal tract, as well, including:
- Crohn’s disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome.
- Ulcerative colitis
- Celiac disease
It can also be part of a medical plan to treat cancer or to manage eating disorders — any condition that may be influenced by specific nutritional elements.
Nutritional Therapy vs. Healthy Eating
MNT is not the same thing as when you decide to eat only salads for lunch to lose weight or your partner starts adding kale to every dish. Nutrition therapy is prescribing a very specific diet to target a specific disease.
For example, with medical nutrition therapy for obesity, the goal is to reduce the risk of diseases that commonly result from it:
- High blood pressure
- Sleep Apnea
- Liver disease
- Lung diseases
- Certain cancers
- Mental health problems
The targeted disease is obesity. A dietician or nutritional counselor works with you to create a diet plan that will help you lose weight safely. You check in regularly with the medical professional to ensure you stay on track and that the prescribed diet is doing what is expected.
Regular meetings with the dietician allow your medical care team to monitor your progress and to make changes based on it. Over time, MNT provides you with enough knowledge that you can manage your diet following a prescribed plan and based on your health and nutritional needs.
How Nutritional Therapy Works
It will start with a recommendation from your primary care physician or treating doctor in most cases. A referral might be necessary for your insurance company to cover the cost of the treatment.
The doctor will set you up with a nutritionist or dietician. This person becomes part of your healthcare team and has access to your medical information. They will also report your treatment progress to your primary care provider.
Expect your first appointment with the dietician to be a long one. You will go over your medical history and undergo a professional nutritional assessment. The first session will include a discussion of your current food habits and lifestyle choices such as exercise.
The nutritionist will take all the information provided including physical health and create an individualized diet and lifestyle recommendation. The diet will support digestion and absorption of nutrients your body needs to fight or manage one or more diseases. A person who is battling obesity will have different needs than someone undergoing chemotherapy or who has ulcerated colitis.
The diet will take into account other factors that might affect your health, as well, such as stress level, family history and environment. The dietician may request the primary care provider order lab tests to support a nutrition plan or to rule out a condition such as pre-diabetes. If an A1C test shows prediabetes, your nutritional needs will change and the dietician will make adjustments to the diet strategy.
The followup consultation will be long, as well. The nutritionist will go over your food diary to see if you are adhering to the plan. It may be necessary to tweak the diet here and there based on new information or your progress. Once you have successfully integrated the prescribed diet and lifestyle changes, the dietician may just do occasional follow-ups to ensure you continue to profit from the program.
Who Benefits from Nutritional Therapy?
In 2004, doctors for President Bill Clinton reported that his health was failing, in part due to complications from a bypass surgery that same year. The prescription was for him to change his diet drastically with the help of MNT implemented by a dietician. With the program, he was able to lose 30 pounds, gain much-needed energy and feel more like himself.
In theory, every person could benefit in some way from nutritional therapy. Everyone has a family history that puts them at risk for chronic illness.
The benefits of MNT include:
- Reduced risk of chronic illness
- Enhanced protection from certain cancers
- Reduction in bone loss associated with aging
- Reduced risk of kidney stone development
- Increased energy
MNT is typically part of the treatment program when you are in the hospital. The dietician will review your records and make dietary choices designed to improve healing. The nutritional counseling may involve food you eat or it might refer to nutrients taken with intravenous fluid or through a feeding tube.
Medical Nutritional Therapy might also be a critical part of managing a gastrointestinal disease and avoiding incidents of inflammatory bowel or diverticulitis. It can be a life-changer for those at risk of diabetes or diagnosed as prediabetic, as well. Nutritional therapy is frequently part of addiction or eating disorder treatment, too.
Ultimately, nutritional therapy is about education. It teaches you how to eat and live right based on your personal wellness needs.