It is both a strange and alarming fact that, even among the more affluent societies of the twenty-first century, there are still large numbers of people whose diets are inadequate and who, although not necessarily visible, suffer from malnourishment on closer examination. Gone are the days in these societies when a general practitioner might have once thought it important to check children routinely for the signs of vitamin deficiencies such as scurvy or rickets. While they may weigh a young patient and measure his or her height, these are likely to be the only efforts made to assess normal growth and only a few would probably consider calculating their BMI.
More often than not, the assessment of nutrition and providing advice regarding its management is seen by doctors as the province of a dietician or a nurse. In many cases, those who may consider themselves to be overweight will seek help from neither of these sources, but will instead turn to lifestyle magazines, the staff of health food shops and the internet to provide them with advice on dietary matters.
In practice, anyone who offers advice with regards to diet can be said to be fulfilling the role of a dietician, although this does not mean that he or she is qualified or has the relevant knowledge to do so. More significantly, even those who do hold a relevant qualification in dietetics may not be nutritionists. In South Africa, the latter require a recognised bachelor’s degree and must be registered with the Health Professions Council. Given these requirements and the growing concerns about obesity and its life-threatening consequences, nutrition is a field in which more doctors need to be involved, as the additional advantage of a nutritionist that also holds a bachelor of medicine degree is clear.
The truth is that far too many diets, including some advocated by prominent physicians and in widespread use for many years, are at best ineffective and, in some cases, have actually been found to present a health hazard. One common explanation for this is that when drastically reducing the intake of carbohydrates and fats, a diet will frequently fail to consider that even these nutrients are necessary for good health. In fact, a successful diet involves balancing both the quantity and the quality of one’s intake, and addressing those factors that stimulate or supress the essential metabolic reactions that regulate their absorption and utilisation. Such measures will, for instance, mean ensuring an adequate intake of vitamins and micronutrients, such as minerals, and this also explains why nutrition is, in many cases, a matter best handled by doctors with specialised knowledge in this increasingly important field.
One field in which assessing and providing an individual’s nutritional requirements has become especially important in recent years is sports medicine. A balanced, healthy diet, designed to meet the demands of strength and stamina on the rugby field and running track, or in the swimming pool and boxing ring, can have a direct and positive influence on performance, but carries none of the health and legal risks of using stimulants and performance enhancing drugs. Whether a professional or amateur sportsman, or enrolling in a fitness programme, in order to perform well, you need to eat well.