The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced what medical professionals have known for decades: nutrition matters. What you eat plays a key role in how well — or how poorly — your immune system works.
While other factors do contribute to a suppressed immune system, good nutrition can actually counteract their effects. Because nurses are often the go-to point of communication with patients, they have an opportunity to serve as influencers and educators about nutrition.
How Does Nutrition Impact Health?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that people with obesity are “at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.” The link between obesity and coronavirus mortality surfaced in findings by a team of experts in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, according to Medical News Today.
Of course, COVID-19 isn’t the only health condition made worse by inadequate nutrition habits. Being overweight or obese increases risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease, some types of cancer, sleep apnea, asthma, osteoarthritis, acne and impaired fertility.
Unhealthy eating habits can also lead to tooth decay which, if left untreated, increases the risk of infection and even life-threatening complications. Poor nutrition may also advance mental health struggles, including depression and anxiety.
Which Populations Are in Greatest Need of Nutrition Help?
A lack of nutrition affects populations in certain areas in the U.S. more than others. A Gallup poll from 2019 revealed that individuals in the Midwestern and Southern states are more likely to engage in unhealthy eating. Some of this has to do with high levels of income disparity in these areas. For a family that is struggling, the dollar menu at a fast food establishment is more budget-friendly than fresh meat and produce.
Looking closer at demographics, the geriatric population often suffers from malnutrition due to a number of circumstances. Along with age comes a natural loss of smell, taste and appetite. Medications may impact one’s appetite or the body’s capacity to absorb important nutrients. For those with dementia, remembering to eat becomes an issue. For many seniors, eating alone removes the enjoyment of food.
How Can Nurses Help?
Nurses don’t typically get much training in nutrition — certainly not as much as a dietitian or certified nutrition specialist. However, their constant interface with patients means they possess a special relationship that provides a sense of trust. Even if nurses themselves aren’t dispensing nutrition advice, they may be able to influence a patient’s inclination to seek out help from a nutrition expert.
However, providing nutrition advice does not exist without challenges — particularly when the subject of weight is involved. It’s a sensitive and difficult topic to broach. In her conversation with David M. Eisenberg, MD, director of culinary nutrition and adjunct associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, writer Kathryn Berger summarizes a few tactics physicians can use to overcome the delicate nature of nutrition-related conversations. With adjustments, some of the tactics apply to nurses as well.
- Learn about nutrition science — and how to break it down. There are so many resources that speak to the value of nutrition in medical application. As trained medical professionals, nurses pick up quickly on the terminology and context. Still, it’s important to put nutrition knowledge in terms that patients can understand and apply.
- Build relationships with dietitians and refer patients to them for treatment. This may be easier for nurses who work within a larger health system and have access to in-house nutrition experts. For nurses who work in smaller clinics, reaching out via email to a local nutrition practitioner is a way to begin building those relationships.
- Enter every conversation in a non-judgmental way. Being accepting is a great way to get patients to open up. Try being inquisitive and factual, yet compassionate. Remember, many patients are searching for solutions but perhaps don’t know how to start on a healthier path.
- Act as a role model and a confidant. Sharing success stories — your own or another patient’s (anonymous, of course) — can be very motivational. Reflect on your own healthy practices and be open to sharing them if patients are curious to learn more.
Extend Your Reach of Patient Advocacy
Nutrition is about more than weight. The overall consequences of neglecting healthy nutrition habits are considerable. As patient advocates, nurses can use knowledge of nutrition to advance the health of their charges.
Learn more about the University of Southern Indiana’s RN to BSN online program.