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What is clinical nutrition?

Clinical nutrition is the study of the relationship between food and the well-being of the body. More specifically, it is the science of nutrients and how they are digested, absorbed, transported, metabolized, stored, and discharged by the body. Besides studying how food works in the body, nutritionists are interested in how the environment affects the quality and safety of foods, and how these factors influence health and disease.


What happens during a visit to a clinical nutritionist?

During the initial part of the visit, the clinical nutritionist will ask you questions about your medical history, family history, and personal lifestyle. The medical history might include questions about your diet, digestion, history of weight loss or gain, sleep and exercise patterns, and relaxation habits. Some clinical nutritionists will ask you to bring to your first meeting a 3-day food diary and list of any herbs, supplements, or medicines that you take regularly. Laboratory tests might be used to find any deficiencies and test organ function. This way, a nutritionist will get a full picture of your nutritional lifestyle.
During the second part of the visit, the nutritionist will recommend ways that you can fill the gaps and reduce the nutritional “overloads” in your diet. For example, if appropriate, he or she may suggest that you schedule your meals at different times or cut down on the amount of carbohydrates that you eat. He or she will also offer advice on specific nutritional supplements if necessary (see below). The nutritionist will then schedule follow-up visits to monitor the progression of your health.


What is clinical nutrition good for?

Studies show that eating habits play a major role in the development of certain chronic diseases (such as heart disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes). Dietary changes can help to both prevent and treat these conditions. For example, lowering “bad” fat and cholesterol intake and adding whole grains to the diet can prevent atherosclerosis (plaque build up in the arteries), which can lead to heart disease or stroke. Reducing caloric intake can help lower weight. Cutting down on simple sugars (glucose, sucrose, fructose, and lactose) can prevent diabetes, and high fiber diets (especially soluble fiber) can help control diabetes.
Scientists have found many other connections to diet and disease. In a study of 20,000 men, for example, one fish meal per week was linked to a 52% reduction in the risk of sudden death from a heart attack. Fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential components of cells and can protect the heart from, for example, fatal arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythm).
In another study of more than 42,000 women, those who ate lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and only lean meats lived longer. High intake of fruits, vegetables, and legumes is associated with a lower risk of developing heart disease.
There are numerous, ongoing studies regarding clinical nutrition. Some interesting results indicate that:

  • high dietary intake of folate (found in leafy greens, dry beans and peas, fortified cereals and grain products, and some fruits and vegetables) may lower risk of stroke and heart disease
  • eating small amounts of fish in pregnancy may protect against early delivery and low birth weight infants
  • iron supplementation in iron depleted women improves aerobic training ability
  • lutein and zeaxanthin (carotenoids) in the diet may reduce risk of cataracts
  • lutein from dietary sources (such as kale and spinach) may protect against colon cancer
  • flavonoids (found in broccoli, citrus fruits, apples, onions, and carrots) may protect against certain types of lung cancer
  • vitamin E (in the diet from fruits and vegetables) may reduce the risk of angina (chest pain) and heart attack in people with atherosclerosis

In hospitals, nutrition is used to improve the overall health of patients with a wide range of conditions. Examples of these conditions are AIDS, cancer, osteoporosis, lung disease, obesity, burns, metabolic disorders, and kidney, liver, and pancreatic disorders. Patients who need surgery are also supported with clinical nutrition.


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