Good nutrition is essential to maintaining a healthy life and healthy lifestyle. Information about eating well abounds online as well as in commercials, magazines, newspapers and mailings. Good nutrition is important when one is well. It is extremely important when one is ill.
When you provide care to a patient in a hospital, long-term care facility, rehabilitation center or in a patients home as part of the home care team, nutrition instructions will be part of your plan of care. Who develops and provides those instructions depends on the state in which you practice.
A nutritionist is a person who plans and/or formulates meals or special meals for patients. Some nutritionists hold degrees and are licensed in the state in which they practice. Others are not licensees or have no higher education in the field. In contrast, a dietitian is one who is concerned with the promotion of good health through proper diet and with the therapeutic use of diet in the treatment of disease.
A bachelors degree with a major in foods and nutrition or institutional management is the minimal educational requirement for the dietitian. In addition, registration in the American Dietetic Association, after meeting specific requirements, is necessary.
Dietitians who teach or specialize in specific areas of dietetics must obtain advanced degrees.
So, what is your role as a nurse in helping upgrade and maintain nutritional health for your patients? If you are in a small rural hospital or a home healthcare nurse in a small rural community, you might be the sole healthcare professional who is knowledgeable about what your patient needs to eat well and regain or maintain his nutritional health.
These settings would require you to assess the patients nutritional needs to promote and maintain the patients health and provide health and patient education about nutrition, to name a few responsibilities.
These responsibilities, clearly supported by your scope of practice in your state nurse practice act, would require you to have a good knowledge of normal and therapeutic nutrition, including food groups; lipids, vitamins and minerals; nutrition during pregnancy; and the needs of the elderly.
Keeping up with new developments in nutrition, both normal and therapeutic, also would be necessary through CE programs (online or traditionally), through a course at a local college or university and by updates on reputable websites. If possible, with the patients physicians OK, seeking a consultation or periodic consultations with a registered dietitian in his or her own practice in your state would be very helpful to find out ways to support and educate the patient and his or her family.
In addition, a good resource text on nutrition would be essential. One to consider is Susan Dudeks Nutrition Essentials for Nursing Practice (2013, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins). It contains very useful information, including units on the Basic Principles of Nutrition, Nutrition in Health Promotion and Nutrition in Clinical Practice.
If, in contrast, you are fortunate to work with a registered dietitian in your clinical setting, your role will be essential in supplementing information about the patients eating habits and nutritional needs and carrying out the diet plan prescribed by the registered dietitian and physician. When you provide nursing care in the patients home, for example, you would ensure the patient is following his or her prescribed diet and, if not, would contact the registered dietitian and physician so that whatever changes are necessary can be made. You might also need to provide the patient a more detailed explanation of the need for a low-salt diet or an increase in calories.