How much does your doctor value nutrition? This has been a rather hot topic of late, with the recent gagging of Gary Fetke in Australia, an orthopaedic surgeon who co-owns a nutrition clinic that employees dietitians to help clients. He has recently been ‘gagged’ by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) and is not able to talk about the role of nutrition in preventative health, nor in the management of chronic illness on any social media platform.
That’s troubling to say the least. Nutrition and talking about nutrition is certainly a contested field, and perhaps there is some protection of the patch when it comes to nutrition advice. I’m not going to lie to you – I can get a little scratchy myself when I read prescriptive advice from people who aren’t qualified in nutrition that push the boundaries in terms of scope of practice. Mainly because of the potential fall out if they aren’t equipped with the knowledge to either resolve an issue or refer it on. But to prevent a doctor talking about nutrition is just madness. Doctors SHOULD be talking about nutrition – especially given that some of the most common reasons people go to their general practitioner (GP) can be improved (if not resolved) by diet. Thank goodness similar shenanigans have not been taking place this side of the ditch.
To what degree GPs should have the authority to discuss nutrition with their patients is a bit of a ridiculous question if you ask me. I know many brilliant GPs that use a holistic approach to their practice, who know a LOT about nutrition, give guidelines when that is all that is required and also who refer their patients on to more in-depth nutrition help if necessary. More important is asking your GP to what degree do they value nutrition. If you feel nutrition is an important part of your overall health, I think that having a GP who feels the same is rather important, and these three questions I heard on a podcast could be a good start to give you confidence that your needs will be met by their services.
- What affect does nutrition have on my health?
This may seem like a weird question to be asking your GP. I mean, surely everyone knows that diet and health are intricately linked, and doctors – well, it’s their job to know this stuff, right? Given the number of clients I have who leave their doctor’s clinic rooms feeling stupid for even mentioning diet, I don’t think we can take it for granted that your GP is going to be open to the idea of diet being a reasonable therapy (or adjunct therapy) to any condition. Sure, the diet-health connection isn’t foreign to them – there is the lipid hypothesis after all. And if you’ve ever stepped on the scales and been told your body mass index (BMI) is too high, so you need to eat less and exercise more to lose a little weight and reduce your overall health risk, then clearly your GP didn’t sleep through their three nutrition lectures provided in the medical school curriculum. However I wouldn’t be surprised if you know more about diet being able to prevent or manage conditions such as auto-immune disease (including type 1 diabetes), mood disorders, inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome, metabolic conditions (such as type 2 diabetes), asthma and allergies and the like. Now I’m not saying your GP is an idiot – at all! But time is a resource many health professionals don’t have, and while your GP might be open to exploring alternative or adjunct nutrition therapy, they may not have had the time to research this avenue. That (in my opinion) isn’t so much of an issue. It’s not as important (in my mind) that your GP may not know as much as you; being open to you exploring it speaks volumes, though. If your GP isn’t interested, then that is a problem. Given some of the reactions that clients have reported when mentioning to their GPs they use diet as a way to manage their health condition, there are clearly GPs who choose to remain ignorant. If you are dismissed, laughed at, or told in no uncertain terms that diet will not help, alarm bells should ring in your head. My advice would be to look for another GP.
- What do you think about the difference between normal lab ranges and optimal ranges for nutrient status?
There’s a difference? There appears to be, or at least, some doctors argue that there is. Vitamin D is a great example of this. In New Zealand, the adequate vitamin D level starts from 50nmol/L but a published review determined that looking at endpoints on a broader scale than just bone health (including bone mineral density (BMD), lower-extremity function, dental health, and risk of falls, fractures, and colorectal cancer) determined it best to have serum concentrations of 25(OH)D begin at 75 nmol/L (30 ng/mL), and the best are between 90 and 100 nmol/L.
Low to low normal levels of serum folate are related to increased risk of depression and increased severity of depressions and affective disorders. Our ‘normal’ starts at above 7 nmol/L and research has shown that people with chronic mood disorders have lower morbidity when their nutrient status is above 18nmol/L, and symptoms began to alleviate when supplementation brought the levels up to above 13nmol/L. Low folate is also associated with higher homocysteine levels in the blood which is an independent risk factor for atherosclerosis.
While B12 levels in the blood are actually a poor indicator of B12 activity (as only 5-20% of the is bound to transports and able to be metabolically active), research has found a relationship between levels of B12 of 258pmol/L and lower in the bloodstream and depression. The ‘normal’ range starts at 170pmol/L, with borderline low from 110-169pmol/L. I know GPs who look for levels of 400pmol/L as being optimal for cognitive functioning and health. A sports doctor I am aware of uses higher cut-offs when it comes to haemoglobin and ferritin (both markers of iron deficiency) for athletes and will supplement to determine if a boost in iron intake helps address fatigue-related complaints or not, even if the athlete is within ‘normal’ range (see here).
Thyroid stimulating hormone, a commonly measured marker of thyroid function has a reference range between 0.5-4.0mIU/L. However, TSH is considered to be a poor indicator of thyroid function and the ‘normal range’ included people that had underactive thyroid or thyroid disease. The recommendation from the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists association was to lower the range to 3, with a view of it lowering further to 2.5mIU/L because data from the National Academy of Clinical Biochemistry found more than 95% of rigorously screened normal euthyroid volunteers have serum TSH values between 0.4 and 2.5 mIU/L. Though this was recommended in 2003, it was contested by other governing bodies, potentially as it meant that the number of people in the US with subclinical thyroid function increased from 3 to 20% of the population, thus (as concluded in this paper) many more would require thyroxine medication as treatment.
These are just a few examples where you may fall into the ‘normal’ range, but may not be optimal according to the opinion of some doctors. At the very least, it may explain why you may be experiencing physical symptoms but these aren’t recognised by your lab test results.
- What will you do if my test results don’t marry up with what I’m telling you my symptoms are?
Important question, don’t you think? Let’s hope that your GP doesn’t respond with ‘perhaps you need to see a psychologist’ – as one of my clients reported. To be honest, I actually think there is a degree of psychosomatic issues that occur when someone is struggling with a health problem – most of us are familiar with the gut-brain axis and relationship between stress and digestive problems. This is partly driven by the return of seemingly ‘normal’ test results that don’t explain their ongoing concerns. However, to dismiss your symptoms as being unimportant because the results don’t reflect what you are reporting should (to me) set off alarm bells.
I think one problem could lie in the funding for lab tests. My GP is brilliant and will order me any test I want, but at my cost. I don’t blame her for this as there is pushback with GPs ordering tests. However I know that not all GPs are like this, and not all people can afford testing to get to the bottom of the issues. I think if more GPs appreciated the role nutrition can play in preventing, managing or reversing many of the chronic conditions people are dealing with today, then, then there would be more referrals to nutritionists or dietitians on the basis of reported symptoms or test results that may fit into the ‘normal’ range, but aren’t what is considered optimal. From here, nutritionists, naturopaths and dietitians can order tests that delve further into hormonal issues, gut problems and even cholesterol levels if required. But this might not be necessary as they may pick up from your initial test results that certain nutritional strategies can help you optimise your nutrient levels without the need for further testing.
At the end of the day, you should feel confident that your GP values nutrition as much as you do.These questions may help you determine that and, if you suspect they do not, perhaps it’s time to find another GP.