So often we hear the saying “prevention is better than cure”. But is there any truth to it? According to numerous experts, there is. Food is at the forefront of prevention of disease, which means dietitians play multiple roles in the prevention of disease.
The message of this year’s Dietitians Week (4 to 8 June) is that "it is impossible to separate disease prevention from nutrition and therefore, from the work of a dietitian,” says Lizl Veldsman, spokesperson for the South African Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (SASPEN).
At the front line of prevention
Lynne Mincher, spokesperson for the Enteral Nutrition Association of South African, agrees, “Good nutrition is the foundation of prevention and recovery. Whether you are talking about supporting breastfeeding, tube-feeding or oral nutritional supplements, a person recovering from an operation or guiding someone with a chronic condition such as diabetes, we need that expertise of the dietitian right at the front line of prevention.”
Jessica Byrne, a spokesperson at the Association for Dietetics in South Africa, says, “Not many people are aware that dietitians, who must be registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) in order to practice their profession, are employed across many different sectors from industry to communities; as well as in health, research and educational institutions. Across the board, they play a key role in disease prevention.”
Here are six ways South African dietitians do prevention:
1. Guidance during first 1 000 days
Dietitians support expecting mothers to ensure they have a healthy pregnancy and prevent any avoidable complications. But, their work doesn’t end there. A baby's first 1 000 days of life are critical, particularly when it comes to nutrition.
“Due to the country’s suboptimal rates of breastfeeding, the dietitian’s promotion of breastfeeding, monitoring of infant growth and ongoing guidance as a baby starts to also consume solids has become critical prevention work. Breastfeeding not only provides the best source of nutrition for a baby but also promotes growth and enhances the vulnerable immune systems of babies to help prevent disease,” explains Byrne.
2. Public health and primary prevention
Healthy eating and hydration are essential for health. Dietitians work hard to educate the public on good food choices to maintain their health, which in turn helps prevent illnesses and avoid diet-related conditions, such as diabetes, malnutrition or obesity. At a community level, dietitians do prevention through the promotion of household food security and the drive to eliminate hunger. Many community projects involve the services of a dietitian.
3. Making every contact count through healthy conversations
Dietitians don't just advise on diet and nutrition, they also engage with clients on other issues related to good health, such as the importance of exercise and not smoking. They also know that social and emotional factors can contribute to a client’s need for a healthier lifestyle.
Speaking to a dietitian should allow people to know where they can also access professional help for non-dietary issues that impact on disease prevention.
4. Hospital, rehab and home-based care
“You will find dietitians working right across the healthcare system,” says Alta Kloppers, spokesperson for the Hospital Dietitian Interest Group. “This is because nutrition plays such an important role in survival, recovery, rehabilitation and symptom relief, as well as reducing the risks of further illnesses and preventing more admissions to hospital and other health care services.”
Dietitians help screen hospitalised patients to identify those who are at risk of developing malnutrition and provide specialised nutrition interventions to manage specific diseases and conditions.
5. Optimising health and secondary prevention
Dietitians do prevention by helping people with existing conditions, such as diabetes, kidney failure or dementia to optimise their nutrition so that they can experience relief from symptoms, prevent complications and enhance their quality of life. This usually includes individualised dietary advice, as well as appropriate follow-up and monitoring.
6. Mental health and addiction recovery
Good nutrition and a healthy diet can have a positive impact on the prevention and management of mental health conditions. It can also help to support recovery and prevent relapses in the case of addiction.
Image credit: iStock