The Nutritional Medicine Approach: is it for me?
When I first started my nutrition studies, I must admit that I literally had no idea what being a nutritionist was all about let alone that nutritional medicine even existed. I’d always believed in eating wholefoods, cooking from scratch and limiting processed foods, and adopting a more sustainable and natural lifestyle; it just made sense to me. My wish to study nutrition was fuelled by curiosity really and the desire to optimise my family’s health both now and in the future. I was interested in understanding more deeply the way nutrients affected our body systems and functions. I thought I would end up helping people lose weight by changing their food choices or assisting a newly-diagnosed Coeliac find foods they could safely eat. But during the three years of my nutrition studies, I realised that there was so much more to being a nutritionist and utilising a nutritional medicine approach.
What is nutritional medicine?
Have you really ever stopped to consider how amazing the human body is?
Nutritional medicine practitioners believe that one such aptitude is the innate ability to heal itself, restore balance and overcome illness.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” Hippocrates.
Based upon the concept that food is the original ancient medicine, today’s nutritional medicine practitioners have the benefit of science to help understand and explain how nutrients and food components are used within the body. The balance of these nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, oxygen and helpful microbes is key to the optimal functioning of all biochemical pathways and processes within our bodies. Nutritional medicine practitioners seek to remove barriers to this innate ability to heal. These barriers may be partly genetic; however, dietary and environmental factors are often tangled up as well.
Nutritional medicine is an arm of naturopathy and is guided by the six naturopathic principles (see below). It is a holistic and individualised approach to managing health. A nutritional medicine practitioner, therefore, considers the whole body, including mind, body and spirit, and seeks to create a balance that is optimal to health as well as disease prevention. As opposed to the conventional medicine approach that generally uses medications or surgery to treat the symptoms.
Nutritional medicine may involve:
Switching food choices
· Rotational or exclusion diets
· Removal of certain foods from diet
· Addition of certain foods from diet
· Supplementation with vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other nutrients
· Removal of certain chemicals from living environment
· Recommendations of physical activity
· Recommendations of lifestyle change
What are the 6 naturopathic principles?
First, Do No Harm (Primum non nocere) - Naturopathic practitioners choose the least invasive and least toxic interventions possible.
The Healing Power of Nature (Vis medicatrix naturae) - Naturopathic practitioners recognise the body’s natural healing ability
Identify and Treat the Causes (Tolle causam) - Naturopathic practitioners identify and address underlying causes, rather than focussing on the individual symptoms.
Doctor as Teacher (Docere) - Naturopathic practitioners empower their patients to take responsibility for their own health through the provision of education and involvement throughout the whole treatment process; valuing a strong patient-doctor relationship.
Treat the Whole Person (Tolle totum) - All aspects of a patient’s health are considered, including nutritional status physical, mental, emotional, genetic, environmental, social and spiritual factors. Each patient is treated as an individual.
Prevention (Praevenic) - Naturopathic medicine emphasizes optimal wellness and disease prevention.
What is the difference between a nutritionist and a naturopath?
In Australia, naturopaths and nutritionists are usually qualified and accredited healthcare professionals that specialise in Nutritional Medicine; however, please note that this may not always be the case and so it is worth double-checking. When I was studying, many of my subjects were delivered jointly to the ‘nutritionists’ and the ‘naturopaths’; however, a naturopath also trained in the use of herbal medicines, and, often with homeopathic and flower remedies as well. Nutritionists, however, will have spent additional study and clinic hours delving into nutritional medicine even more deeply.
What is the difference between a nutritionist and a dietician?
Both nutritionists and dieticians use evidence-based approaches to modifying diets to help an individual’s health needs. Both hold a similar vision to improve food choices, health and wellbeing for their clients. However, their philosophies differ. Nutritional medicine uses the holistic approach, treating every one as an individual whereas dieticians are primarily trained to give evidence-based dietary advice for specific conditions and transform the scientific nutrition information into a tailored diet plan for each client. Nutritionists are often found in private practice or working in holistic centres, whereas dieticians generally work in places like hospitals and nursing homes. In Australia, dieticians are recognised by Medicare whereas nutritionists (and naturopaths) are not; however, some private health funds do recognise fully-qualified and accredited nutritionists. However, as you can imagine, these differences may not be as distinct as this due to individual practitioners style and approach.
What is the difference between a nutritionist and a health coach?
Be careful here as ‘a nutritionist’ can vary in definition and credibility around the world. In Australia, nutritionists should hold a minimum qualification of an Advanced Diploma of Nutritional Medicine (if graduated pre-2018) to be accredited by an industry association like the Australian Natural Medicine Society. Since 2018, all nutritionists must hold a Bachelor degree qualification. For a nutritionist to be recognised by a private health fund (be aware that not all private health funds cover nutrition) they must meet certain requirement including being accredited by an association.
A health coach may have undertaken a short course in nutrition but does not have the in-depth training and understanding that a nutritionist has. They are not recognised as accredited or qualified nutritionist by industry associations of private health funds. A health coach may help put together a meal plan or provide general nutrition and healthy lifestyle advice, however, they are not trained to use food and supplements in specific doses/measures as a way of treating and preventing disease. In some instances, a health coach may help implement the plan put together by the nutritionist (or naturopath or dietician).
Why choose a nutritionist?
A nutritionist will have undertaken a minimum of two years of higher education, specifically focussed upon nutrition. This study enables the nutritionist to have a sound understanding of the anatomy, physiology and biochemistry of the body systems, an in depth understanding of all nutrients within foods and how these nutrients are absorbed and used within the body. A nutritionist will have gained knowledge on disease and health conditions, and ways to manage utilising dietary modifications, nutrient supplementation and lifestyle change. A nutritionist has an appreciation for a range of culturally, religiously, socio-economically diverse groups of people; a nutritionist is trained to help all ages from pre-birth through to the elderly. A nutritionist will continue their education and stay up-to-date through reading new research papers and attending industry seminars.
A nutritionist will look for the underlying cause or imbalance by interpreting signs, symptoms, conducting/requesting functional testing as required and utilising relevant, up-to-date evidence-based research and clinical experience. They will provide a plan that empowers you to make dietary and lifestyle changes to break down the barriers that are blocking your body’s innate ability to optimise its health.
What is involved in a nutrition consultation?
Initial nutrition consultations are lengthy and are primarily an information-gathering session. A nutritionist will ask questions about:
· Presenting signs & symptoms
· Current & past health conditions
· Diet/food choices
· Physical condition
· Daily exercise
· Alcohol, tobacco, drug consumption
· Sleep patterns
· Family health history
· Exposure to toxins
Physical examinations and diagnostic/screening testing (utilising blood, urine, saliva, or hair samples) may also be used, if necessary.
The nutritionist will then create an individualised plan specific to your health needs and lifestyle. The plan may include:
· Dietary advice e.g. exclusions of certain foods, inclusions of certain foods, food swaps, quantity and timing of meals
· Meal plans
· Supplement (e.g. vitamin, mineral) recommendations
· Exercise suggestions
· Lifestyle changes
· Education and Counselling
Sometimes, it may be necessary to refer to other healthcare professionals for additional advice or a shared care type plan.
Nutritional medicine is a holistic approach to managing your health. By balancing nutrients and removing dietary and environmental barriers to the body’s innate ability to heal, nutritionists aim to empower you to optimise your health.
If you are interested in finding out more, how I may be able to help you or your family, please book a FREE 15 minute discovery session at
Australian Naturopathic Practitioners Association. https://anpa.asn.au/nutritional-medicine/
Davidson S, 2013, The difference between nutritional medicine and dietetics. https://www.endeavour.edu.au/about-us/blog/the-difference-between-nutritional-medicine-and-dietetics/
Fleming, S. A., & Gutknecht, N. C. (2010). Naturopathy and the primary care practice. Primary care, 37(1), 119–136. doi:10.1016/j.pop.2009.09.002 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2883816/
Meldrum, J. M. (1993). What is Nutritional Medicine? Nutrition and Health, 9(2), 135–150. https://doi.org/10.1177/026010609300900209