A wholesome diet is the foundation of wellness. As a support professional, it’s a medical assistant’s role to help doctors, nurses and nutritionists educate patients about healthy eating habits. A medical assistant should understand how different types of foods affect the body and how certain foods relate to serious medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and stroke. These are the basics every medical assistant should know.
Food is fuel for the body and comes in two essential forms, macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients include carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber and water. They are necessary for energy and healthy body function. Micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals, support the billions of chemical processes that occur in the body and are only needed in small quantities.
Because macronutrients are consumed in large amounts, consistently eating too much or too little of any single type can cause or worsen disease. Balance is essential for good health.
Carbohydrates – Glucose, a simple sugar, is the body’s primary fuel, and it comes mostly from carbohydrates. So-called simple carbs like white bread and pasta have little fiber and are quickly converted by the body into glucose, causing blood sugar to spike and fall sharply. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, vegetables and legumes take longer to digest and keep blood glucose, and energy level on a more even keel.
Protein is made up of nine amino acids, each with a unique function, from cellular repair to building muscle. Amino acids can’t be synthesized by the body and are found nowhere else in nature, so consuming protein regularly is a must. Meat, eggs, dairy products, vegetables, grains and legumes all contain protein, but only animal protein contains all nine amino acids.
Fats – also known as lipids, are vital for temperature regulation and serve as a secondary form of energy. Most come from food, but cholesterol, a sterol similar to fat, is also produced naturally by the liver. Fats insulate nerve fibers, support cell walls, and help the body process certain vitamins, but some are healthier than others. Saturated fat, found in most animal products, is associated with higher rates of heart disease, while unsaturated fat, found in vegetables, fruits and fish may have a protective effect.
Fiber – is not digestible and comes in two varieties, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in a fluid. It helps regulate blood sugar and lipids and may decrease inflammation. Insoluble fiber provides bulk and helps stool move through the intestinal tract. Both play a role in preventing constipation and maintaining a healthy balance of gut microorganisms.
Water – Every chemical reaction in the body requires water. It regulates body temperature, hydrates skin, lubricates joints and muscles and helps the body process waste. Up to 60 percent of the human body is water, and without it, life is not sustainable.
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals essential for good health.
Vitamins – Thirteen vitamins come in two forms, fat-soluble and water-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins including A, D, E and K need lipids to be absorbed and are stored in the body. Water-soluble vitamins including eight B-vitamins and vitamin C dissolve in water and can’t be stored. Each has a different, but necessary role in the body. Vitamin deficiencies are rare in the United States, but because animal products are the best natural source of vitamin B-12, vegans may need a supplement or fortified foods to get the recommended daily allowance.
Minerals – The body needs five major minerals including calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and sodium plus small amounts of trace minerals including iron, zinc, copper, manganese, fluoride, cobalt and selenium. Like vitamins, each plays a different role, but all are critical to healthy body function. Because minerals control the body’s fluid and pH balance, even minor deficiencies or excesses should be avoided.
Diet as a Tool for Good Health Habits
Doctors and nutritionists recommend proper nutrition as one of many good health habits that can decrease the risk of disease, but they also use dietary modifications to manage certain chronic conditions.
High Blood Pressure
Sodium may not be directly responsible for hypertension, but because it controls fluid balance in the body, overuse can cause water retention that raises blood pressure and damages the kidneys. To prevent hypertension, consuming less than 2000 milligrams of sodium daily by avoiding salty and processed foods is recommended. For clients diagnosed with high blood pressure, less than 1500 milligrams is the target.
Atherosclerotic Heart Disease and Stroke
Atherosclerotic heart disease is the progressive narrowing and stiffening of the coronary arteries due to a build-up of fatty plaques. Over time, this can lead to a complete arterial blockage and a heart attack. If a plaque ruptures, it can cause a blood clot that leads to stroke. Risk factors include smoking, hypertension, diabetes and stress, but also obesity and high cholesterol, which can be changed with diet. To manage the risk of heart disease and stroke, doctors recommend good health habits like cutting calories, decreasing sodium to lower blood pressure and eliminating the saturated fat that forms arterial plaques.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is an excess of blood sugar caused by the body’s resistance to insulin. It’s a complex disorder but is rooted in excess consumption of carbohydrates and obesity. As a lifestyle disease, it’s preventable with good health habits including a balanced diet.
Good Health Habits for Long-Term Wellness
Medical assistants can reinforce the doctors’ dietary recommendations and encourage clients to build on their nutrition efforts with these additional suggestions:
- Don’t smoke
- Get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise
- Manage stress by finding time to relax
- Avoid micronutrient deficiencies by eating a well-balanced diet including plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Sleep enough to feel rested
- Maintain a normal weight
- Stay hydrated
- See a doctor as recommended for regular preventive care
Wellness is a journey built on a lifetime of good health habits. As part of the healthcare team, medical assistants can support their patients in that journey by being a valuable source of information and support.
Did learning about how medical assistants can educate patients about good health habits interest you? Interested in working with colleagues that want to help their patients stay healthy? Ready for an exciting new career in the medical assisting field? PCI Health Training Center’s Medical Assistant programs prepares a graduate to work as an entry-level Medical Assistant. Within this general career category there are several specialty areas, including Medical Administrative Office Assistant, Clinic Assistant, Clinic Tech, Medical Office Manager, Phlebotomist, Physical Therapy Aide in a doctor’s office, clinic or hospital out-patient clinic. Contact PCI Health Training Center for more information on how to become a medical assistant and start a rewarding career today.
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