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Medical Nutrition Therapy: Meal Plans Tailored To Your Medical Needs

Posted on March 1, 2023 by Henry Ford Health Staff

Dietary changes are a common prescription for many medical conditions. If you have more than one health issue, the requirements can start to add up. And sometimes the nutrition advice for one condition conflicts with the recommendations for another. Eating what’s best for your health can get confusing.

To help manage nutrition changes for medical conditions, your doctor may prescribe medical nutrition therapy. With this approach, a dietitian creates a customized nutrition plan tailored to your medical needs. Treatments can include anything from dietary changes for weight loss to nutrition supplements that prevent malnutrition.

“Medical nutrition therapy is based on the connection between what you eat and your health. Dietitians are specially trained to identify how your current eating habits may be contributing to specific medical conditions. They can develop nutrition plans to treat or manage a wide range of diseases,” says Allegra Picano, RDN, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health. 

Picano explains what medical nutrition therapy is and how dietitians work with patients to develop a plan that meets their needs. 

What Is Medical Nutrition Therapy? 

Many people who want to improve their health turn to nutrition education for general guidelines on healthy eating. While this information is valuable, it does not provide targeted guidance for specific medical needs. 

In contrast, medical nutrition therapy is customized to control or treat medical conditions. It is administered by a dietitian, who works closely with your doctor, to achieve specific health outcomes. 

For example, your physician may refer you to a dietitian for medical nutrition therapy if you have high cholesterol and coronary artery disease. With these conditions, cholesterol-containing deposits (plaque) build up in the arteries leading to your heart, slowing or blocking blood flow.

After assessing your current eating habits and reviewing your health history, a dietitian develops a plan that outlines healthy swaps you can make in your diet to lower your cholesterol. As part of the plan, you’ll receive a list of foods to avoid. You’ll also receive suggestions for how to add certain foods to your diet, such as fruits and vegetables, lean protein and fiber

These guidelines, as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, can help prevent additional plaque buildup. “Our goal is to adjust the diet to stop the progression of the disease,” Picano says. “We continue to follow patients, making adjustments to their diet as needed to achieve the best results.”

In addition to heart disease, medical nutrition therapy is an effective treatment for:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Gastrointestinal disorders such as celiac disease
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Kidney disease
  • Obesity

Medical Nutrition Therapy For Multiple Medical Conditions 

“The majority of patients treated with medical nutrition therapy have multiple medical conditions,” Picano says. “Dietitians work with a patient’s care team to prioritize short- and long-term nutrition goals, depending upon the severity of each condition.”   

For example, a dietitian may design a multi-stage nutrition plan to treat diverticulitis and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Diverticulitis is a condition in which pouches that bulge out from your colon or intestine become inflamed. For this condition, it is important to limit fiber to avoid further inflammation. But to control hypoglycemia, patients are encouraged to eat more fiber and lean protein.

“For this patient, we would initially adjust the diet to treat diverticulitis. Once that condition is under control, we would address the hypoglycemia, adding small amounts of fiber and protein throughout the day,” says Picano. “While these changes would be difficult for a patient to manage on their own, a dietitian can provide specific guidelines to help manage both conditions.” 

Medical nutrition therapy can also help reduce the likelihood of developing complications or related conditions. For example, if you have diabetes and obesity, a dietitian may develop a medical nutrition therapy to control your blood sugar (glucose) level and help you lose weight. It could also lower your risk for conditions associated with diabetes and obesity, such as heart disease and hypertension (high blood pressure).  

What To Expect When Meeting With A Dietitian For Medical Nutrition Therapy

You or your physician can contact a dietitian to help you manage dietary requirements for multiple medical conditions. During an initial assessment, a dietitian will:

  • Review your current medical conditions, including your medications and other treatments 
  • Assess your current eating habits, physical activity and lifestyle
  • Discuss your short- and long-term nutrition goals

Based on this evaluation, your dietitian will develop a medical nutrition therapy plan tailored to your needs. Your plan will include SMART (Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Timebound) goals. 

“These goals provide step-by-step guidance for how to change your daily diet. Research has shown that by following specific nutrition guidelines for a defined period of time, people successfully change their eating habits to improve their health,” Picano says.

After your initial evaluation, your dietitian will continue to monitor your progress, ensuring your nutrition is meeting your medical needs. “This follow-up care is an important part of medical nutrition therapy. We work with you and your care team to achieve the best outcomes.”  

Looking for more nutrition advice and want to make an appointment with a registered dietitian? Call 1-855-434-5483 or visit Nutrition Services at henryford.com.

Allegra Picano is a registered dietitian nutritionist for the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.
Categories : EatWell

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