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Managing Patient Nutrition and Wellness in the New Year

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Practical advice and a new perspective may help you relate to patients who are ready for a lifestyle change.

The end of the holiday season and the beginning of a new year act as a signal to millions of individuals that the time has come to reevaluate the previous year and begin the new one armed with healthier habits. Gym memberships are purchased, promises are made to eat better and to get more high-quality sleep. To help turn well-meaning goals into solid changes, hear from American Association of Nurse Practitioners® (AANP) Obesity Community Co-chair Rebecca J. Graves Ph.D., NP-C, on ways nurse practitioners (NPs) can best discuss health and wellness — including tips on how to begin with the NP in the mirror.

Meeting Patients Where They Are in 2023

NPs and other health care experts agree that exercising is key to a healthy lifestyle, but patients trying to force themselves to do so is not a strategy that will play out in the long run. “Find something you enjoy,” suggests Graves. “I enjoy walking, I enjoy running, but not everybody does, and there comes a day that I won’t be able to do that anymore, most likely, because the knees don’t last forever. …[patients] can do stairsteps, they can do marches in place, they can do video aerobics on the television. You’re not going to do something you don’t enjoy for long, and this is not a temporary thing to get to a certain point — this is a lifestyle change that will serve you for the rest of your life and hopefully give you a happier, healthier, longer life.”

Aside from finding an exercise that patients enjoy, Graves also suggests busy patients — especially parents — consider how they may incorporate bursts of aerobic activity into family life. “I believe — and evidence shows — that just 20 minutes of activity a day, getting your heart rate up, is good for your heart. It’s good for your lab values, it’s good for your mind, it’s good for depression, it’s good for anxiety and it’s good for sleep,” says Graves. With time constraints and busy schedules, NPs may help their patients by suggesting possibly overlooked opportunities for activity. Graves suggests an after-dinner family walk with the dog, for example, and she recommends that parents who drop off kids at soccer practice can keep active by walking the track or partaking in other low-impact aerobic activities.

Considering Nutrition Culturally

Just as incorporating physical activity into a busy schedule is dependent upon factors including where a family lives, how much time they feel they can allot to their health and much more, consulting an individual or family on nutrition should consider who the patient is and their cultural context. “We can’t prescribe a diet or a type of eating for all patients and disregard their culture,” says Graves. She suggests asking a patient what kind of food they enjoy and working within those constructs. “What spices do you like, what proteins do you like, what vegetables do you like?” she asks. In the end, healthy eating does have a singular solution, no matter what formula is used: “What we can do, regardless, is increase the vegetables, increase the fruits, maybe decrease the saturated fats and simple carbohydrates.”

When discussing the prototypical busy American family, Graves envisions evenings where convenience food is just the easiest and most satisfying option for a group on the go. It is not ideal, but “there are some healthier fast foods,” she says. “You can choose grilled chicken instead of fried chicken, and you can go to a fast-food restaurant that has a fruit cup for the kids instead of just french fries. Small changes will eventually translate.”

NP, Heal Thyself!

It’s worth a reminder that the considerations NPs provide to patients regarding eating healthily, getting regular exercise and prioritizing self-care apply to them, as well. “I care as much about the self-care of nurses and NPs as I do about care for patients, because the caregiver has to take care of themselves,” says Graves.

More Resources to Enhance Your Success

To assist your patients in understanding the basics of nutrition, consider referring them to this resource provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which explains food group and portion fundamentals. AANP members may access free NPower articles regarding moderation and aging healthily, and learn more through continuing education (CE) activities offered by AANP. These activities include “Nutrition in the Critically Ill or Hospitalized Patient,” which offers .72 contact hours of CE credit, and “The Gut Microbiome, Mental Health, and Cognitive and Neurodevelopmental Disorders: A Scoping Review,” which offers 1.0 contact hours of CE credit.

A topical tie-in is always a great way to introduce healthy habits to your patients, and February is American Heart Month — an excellent opportunity to discuss the benefits of heart health. This resource from The American Heart Association is designed to assist you with the management of cardiovascular risk in patients with Type 2 diabetes, and the National Institutes of Health has also created a useful article entitled “What Is Heart-Healthy Living?” This year, know that AANP has your back as you serve your communities and introduce healthy habits to patients across the lifespan.