Despite obesity epidemic, doctors lack training in nutrition

Doctors receive little education on obesity and nutrition in most U.S. medical schools.

While there is a global obesity epidemic, most doctors have little training in obesity and nutrition.

Despite the health problems that can result from being overweight, many U.S. medical schools haven’t reacted to the need to provide future doctors with nutrition and obesity education, writes Bruce Y. Lee, M.D. in Forbes.

“Studies have confirmed that medical students are starved of nutrition and obesity education," says Lee, associate professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and executive director of its Global Obesity Prevention Center. 

As the obesity epidemic has grown, medical schools’ efforts to provide this education actually decreased, he says. For instance, one study found that in 2008-2009, only 27% of 105 medical schools met the minimum 25 required hours of nutrition education set by the National Academy of Sciences. That was down from 38% in a separate 2004 study.

Lee says there are a number of reasons medical schools aren’t addressing the lack of knowledge. Among them is the fact that medical licensing exams have not changed to measure students’ knowledge about obesity prevention and treatment. 

In a recent study, six obesity experts reviewed questions from three versions of the board exams medical students must pass and found they did not sufficiently address important obesity-related topics or left them out entirely.

Managing obesity and nutrition is a challenge for pediatricians, says Stephen Cook, M.D., of the University of Rochester Medical Center, in an interview with MedPage Today. Doctors must work with parents to help manage their child’s diet, he says, and also point families to resources for healthy food.

Doctors must show empathy for obese patients and use a whole-person approach to provide them with quality care. They must find appropriate ways to talk to patients about obesity and treat it as a chronic disease.