Healthy nutrition is essential to keeping current and future generations sharp and protected across the lifespan. With a balanced diet, children can grow and develop properly, ultimately reducing their risk of chronic illnesses. At the same time, adults live longer and have a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer. Additionally, healthy nutrition can help individuals with chronic diseases manage their conditions and avoid further complications.
However, eating healthy is often easier said than done for Americans. According to Time Magazine, roughly 90% of Americans have a poor diet. While the American public pays more attention to healthy eating, the Pew Research Center argues not everyone is embracing what they learn.
Pursuing a healthy diet can be a challenging undertaking for anyone without proper healthcare guidance. Fortunately, Nurse Practitioners (NPs) can apply their skills in nutrition by acting as patient guides and delivering supplemental education. Since nurses are the patient’s initial point of contact, they can explain the importance of essential nutrition and the facts about healthy food choices. Although hospital NPs may concentrate more on the dietary concerns of patients recovering from diseases, others focus more on prevention and boosting the immunity of individuals and communities they serve.
This article explores how NPs can provide nutrition education to their patients and wider communities.
NPs can perform comprehensive nutritional assessments
Teaching nutrition starts by gaining valuable insights into an individual’s dietary habits. When NPs can identify nutrient deficiencies or excesses, they can address specific health concerns and prevent potential complications. One way for NPs to understand an individual’s health habits is by conducting a comprehensive nutritional assessment.
By conducting a nutritional assessment, NPs can analyze food intake, assess body composition, and consider several biochemical markers. This allows them to pinpoint health risks associated with poor nutrition, address nutritional imbalances, and enable proactive management and prevention of chronic conditions. More often than not, NPs can conduct nutritional assessments through the following.
Review medical history
NPs collect information on the patient’s medical history, medications, and conditions to understand their potential nutritional implications.
Perform anthropometric measurements
NPs measure height, weight, and waist circumference to assess body composition and nutritional status. While performing anthropometric measurements, NPs must consider the proportions of the measurements as an individual’s height and weight can indicate their overall health.
Identify biochemical markers
NPs order and interpret relevant laboratory test results to evaluate nutritional levels and identify deficiencies. NPs use biochemical measurements, including hemoglobin, albumin, C-reactive protein, white cell count, glycated hemoglobin, sodium levels, micronutrients, magnesium, urea levels, calcium, and phosphate among others.
While conducting a nutritional assessment, NPs engage in detailed discussions with patients to collect information on dietary habits, preferences, and potential nutritional risks based on gender, age, and life stage. They also explore the patient’s social environment, including family and community influences, to understand the support system and potential challenges in following nutritional recommendations. By employing these methods, NPs can gain an in-depth and more holistic understanding of the patient’s nutritional wellbeing.
NPs can set realistic nutritional goals
Most Americans do not pursue a healthy diet because of a lack of direction and realistic goals. That is where NPs can help. These healthcare professionals can engage patients in goal setting by considering their preferences, priorities, and willingness to change their lifestyles.
Doing so allows them to identify potential obstacles and develop strategies for patients to overcome them, ultimately promoting continuous adherence to nutritional goals. More often than not, NPs adopt a SMART goal setting strategy when establishing realistic nutritional goals. Having a SMART goal ensures they can define what the patient must do and how they can measure their progress.
Patients often have several ideas of what they want to do and how they want to achieve it when it comes to nutrition. Although this can help, it can sometimes become too confusing and overwhelming, making them more likely to lose track of their main nutritional objective.
For example, “I want to eat healthy” is a broad statement that does not pinpoint anything specific. Instead, when constructing a goal, NPs will help patients think of what they could implement to make their goal even more specific. An example of a more specific goal could be, “I will eat two pieces of fruit at lunch and at least one vegetable every dinner.” With a specific and measurable objective, patients can track progress easily and stay motivated toward achieving their primary goals.
NPs ensure patient nutritional goals are measurable to make it easier for them to track. A straightforward process of how patients measure their goals will hold them accountable for reaching their desired outcome.
NPs involve patients in goal setting to ensure their nutritional goals are achievable. More often than not, NPs customize goals based on the patient’s lifestyle. They also break down more significant nutritional goals into smaller and more manageable steps, allowing patients to concentrate on one aspect at a time and build confidence.
NPs ensure the patient’s nutritional goal aligns with their values and long-term objectives. On the surface, chasing a big goal, such as eating healthy, can result in patients creating irrelevant smaller objectives that do not relate to their overall plan. For example, their big goal is getting proper nutrients, but they start to make additional goals such as “I want to work out three times weekly.” Although this is a healthy practice, it does not relate to their overarching goal of wanting to eat healthier. NPs ensure patients stay on the path and that every goal they create directly connects to their primary objective.
NPs establish time-bound patient nutritional goals to monitor their progress and ensure they stay on track. Without any time limit set to their nutritional objectives, patients can easily sway off track and lose motivation. In contrast, a clear and time-based goal increases the likelihood of patients feeling more motivated as they continue.
Sometimes, people stall on the road to reaching their nutritional goals because how their objectives are shaped makes it hard to achieve them. By incorporating SMART goal setting, NPs can provide clear guidelines and ensure patients have an appropriate understanding of what they aim to achieve. Patients can achieve sustainable changes and adjust based on changing circumstances through this process too.
NPs can engage in active listening
Engaging in active listening through personalized counseling sessions is another way for NPs to teach patients about nutrition. To practice, NPs must have earned an RN to MSN online degree from a leading academic institution such as Wilkes University. These are accredited programs at Wilkes University, and provide NPs with the knowledge and tools needed to deliver personalized and one-on-one guidance to help patients understand how diet impacts their overall health. This one-on-one approach allows for a more in-depth understanding of the patient’s challenges and facilitates the development of realistic and sustainable dietary plans.
Although every counseling session is different, NPs often spend time getting to know the patient, their cultural preferences, budget concerns, medical conditions, and program goals. By engaging in active listening, NPs can establish a therapeutic alliance that promotes respect and nonjudgmental acceptance. This increases the likelihood that patients will confide in them in challenging situations. Either way, NPs perform the following functions in personalized nutritional counseling sessions.
Evaluate general health
NPs may ask patients about food allergies and digestive issues. They may request a list of medications or supplements the patients are taking and interview them about their physical activity level, current eating habits, and where they struggle the most.
Explain the foundation of good nutrition
NPs teach patients how different foods impact their health and how they feel. They may also help patients understand the number of servings per container (in the case of processed or pre-packaged food), teach them how to read food product labels, and visualize what individual serving sizes should look like.
Show patients how to make smart food choices
NPs help patients identify negative emotions and thought patterns around food. They can also identify the patient’s hunger cues and improve their relationship with food and beverages. Doing so can prevent binge eating, yo-yo dieting, and compulsive eating.
Personalized counseling sessions by NPs help patients explore emotional and situational triggers for unhealthy eating habits. Depending on the healthcare professional, the session may discuss how social situations and relationships impact delivery choices too.
Under the guidance of NPs, patients learn to interpret their nutritional assessment results and incorporate well-balanced nutrients into economical, healthy, and tasty meals and snacks. This way, patients can manage chronic conditions better, achieve enhanced fitness, and improve overall wellness. Furthermore, personalized guidance and counseling sessions promote more targeted improvements since the advice is tailored to the individual’s health and nutritional requirements.
NPs can conduct interactive discussions
Nutrition education is crucial in promoting healthy eating habits and overall wellbeing. But it can sometimes be perceived as dry and uninteresting. So, it is no surprise that NPs are turning to interactive discussions to garner the patient’s attention and promote a deeper understanding of nutrition. Through interactive discussions, NPs can incorporate elements that make nutrition education more engaging and memorable to patients.
Interactive nutrition discussions can involve question and answer sessions, case studies, scenario analysis, group sharing, debates, comparative discussions, role-playing, and collaborative games. They can also incorporate healthy eating simulations to demonstrate the consequences of dietary choices. For example, they can navigate a character throughout the day, making eating habits that impact their energy and health.
Immersing patients in real-life nutrition scenarios ensures they can learn actively and understand nutrition concepts more deeply. Interactive discussions are a powerful tool for NPs to make nutrition education more engaging and effective. By incorporating these elements in their teaching methods, NPs can inspire patients to become active participants in their nutritional journey and equip them with valuable skills to improve their health continuously.
Moreover, these interactive sessions allow NPs to distribute visual aids and flyers to simplify complex concepts and make nutritional information more accessible. Doing so enhances patient retention and understanding, especially for individuals with specific dietary restrictions. It can also illustrate balanced meal compositions, help patients plan nutritious meals, and facilitate comparisons between healthy and unhealthy food choices.
NPs can collaborate with a registered dietitian
The importance of an interdisciplinary approach to nutrition cannot be overstated, as the industry deals with various psychosocial, functional, and medical challenges. As NPs work independently, they can collaborate with a registered dietitian to develop cohesive care plans that integrate medical and nutritional aspects. Doing so makes it easier to tailor interventions to meet patient needs and allow specialized consultations when necessary.
Malnutrition is an ongoing problem in the US. Recent numbers indicate more than 40 million Americans face hunger. What makes malnutrition worse is that it is associated with long-term poor outcomes and high care expenses, especially in cancer patients. Early intervention to prevent and treat malnutrition is crucial to successful and effective nursing care. When NPs collaborate with dietitians, they can provide medical nutrition therapy to prevent and address Nutrition Impact Symptoms (NIS).
While collaborating with dietitians, NP can perform routine NIS screening and provide early intervention for gastroparesis, esophagitis, vomiting, and early satiety. This allows them to identify symptoms early, which is essential in treating and controlling eating issues before they derail treatment protocols. On top of everything else, regular communication between NPs and registered dietitians ensures they can monitor patient outcomes and adjust care plans based on nutritional and medical evaluations.
Achieving effective nutrition education
Effective nutrition education is a collaborative process that does not happen overnight. As NPs are the first point of contact for patients, they are crucial in ensuring everyone receives the correct information to decide on their nutrition and eating habits.