Food for thought: Pharmacists can be nutrition guides for patients

There is no mystery. Food and medicine go hand in hand. Studies and guidelines repeatedly instruct our patients to stick to a healthy lifestyle — “Eat this, don’t eat that.” We’ve all heard the tale of the pharmacist who rings up a patient for atorvastatin along with a half gallon of full-fat ice cream. It’s not a surprise to hear that obesity is a public health crisis and basically the culprit behind pretty much every chronic disease. In this day and age, with so many “quick fixes,” when it comes to weight loss and dieting — keto, fasting, eat carbs, do not eat carbs, go vegan, eat like a Neanderthal — what is right, what is wrong?

Nutrition reaches far beyond weight loss or counting carbs for patients with diabetes. It seems that every day, new literature emerges demonstrating how food is medicine. The value of food is deeper than lifestyle modifications; it has become part of the healing process itself. Just adding 1 tablespoon of turmeric a day to your diet can reduce inflammation. Who knew? Not to mention many medications, themselves, can lead to nutritional deficiencies. For example, metformin depletes vitamin B12. Pharmacists naturally are at the center of it all.

Before we carve out our role, we need to know what we do not know — or maybe we do not even know what we do not know. Do pharmacists need to be masters of all things nutritional and functional medicine in order to be helpful? At what level or depth do we need to educate our patients?

Perhaps we lack comfort or confidence to have “that talk,” thinking we are not specialists. Who are we to give advice? Are we afraid to offend our patients? Do we assume there is no chance they will ever change, so why even try?

Or is the real question, how on earth can we find time to do this? There already are so many other things we are expected to do, and not enough time to do it, let alone take a break to use the restroom. From medication therapy management and immunizations to two-step verification, our plates are full. Sure, this would be nice, but this is not on our metrics reports.

The reality is that this is our job. We took an oath that we would “assure optimal outcomes” for our patients. We have to find a way to uphold this oath. It is just a matter of prioritization. We are only doing half of the work, if we counsel a patient on a medication without talking about the role of food.

Food. It’s that simple. Turn on your television and download a cooking app, and educate yourself on how to cook, how to grocery shop, what foods taste good together, and what can be substituted for what. We live in a time when this is a hot topic, whether it’s at the supermarket, talking to other parents on the soccer field, or scrolling through social media. It would be hard to find someone who has never heard of whole wheat pasta by now. How can we possibly teach our patients how to navigate this lifestyle unless we do it ourselves?

We, pharmacists, have the opportunity, ability and knowledge to help our patients not just “diet,” but make lifestyle modifications to lead healthier, better lives.

Jamie Weiner Riskin is clinical assistant professor in the department of pharmacy practice at Nova Southeastern University College of Pharmacy.


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