The transition to sustainable and balanced diets is necessary to ensure food security, human health and the health of the planet. Healthcare professionals may play a role in this transition, but their degree of involvement depend on their level of knowledge and practice on the topic.
A recent study led by Spanish researchers and funded by the Danone Institute Spain aimed to assess the knowledge, attitudes and practices of Spanish healthcare professionals, in order to further develop educational initiatives and strengthen their role in patients support (1).
Healthcare professionals as key players in awareness-raising and education
Healthcare professionals have significant role and influence over their patients’ food choices. Their knowledge, credibility, close contact with the population, designate them as key partners for the promotion of sustainable diets (2). Recent studies suggest, however, that health professionals are not literate on sustainable diets. So far, those studies have mainly focused on professionals from US and Canada, and to a lesser extent to Europeans.
Knowledge, attitudes and practices of healthcare professionals in Spain
This study was conducted using an online questionnaire among 2545 Spanish healthcare professionals (1139 nurses, 427 doctors, 346 pharmacists, 550 dietitians and 83 undefined health professionals). The survey gathered information on participants’ socio-demographic characteristics, professional experience, level of continuing education, and knowledge, attitudes and practices regarding sustainable diets.
It shows that the majority of healthcare professionals had a medium to low level of knowledge about sustainable diets:
- 21,5% of the health professionals had never heard of “sustainable diets” before.
- Of those who had,
- 44% had heard about it through channels unrelated to the healthcare profession, such as press, social media or informal conversations.
- Professional channels, such as dietary guidelines, scientific conferences or papers, continuous education courses were reported by less than 20% of the sample.
Health and nutrition first
After presenting the FAO definition of “sustainable diet” (3), 60,6% of the participants considered it very important that the “population take into account all dimensions of sustainable diets (human health, environment, and socio-economical dimensions)”. However, they mostly considered that the health dimensions (nutritional adequacy, food safety) were much more relevant than the other aspects. The consumption of foods high in sugars, highly processed or containing heavy metals were the most listed concerning diet-related health effects.
A lack of knowledge on environmental and socio-economical aspects
The majority of the health professionals (~70%) recognized having a low to medium level of knowledge on the environmental impact of diets and 60,9% of them considered it relevant to broaden their knowledge on environmental and on socio-economic impacts of diets.
A need to enrich education and training
Continuous training courses or scientific conferences play a major role in enriching the knowledge of healthcare professionals. However, according to the authors, there is a need to develop specific content on sustainable diets. While health professionals reported attending professional and scientific conferences, only 12% of the sample population indicated to have heard about sustainable diets in conferences or courses.
Through the development of dedicated training contents, it would be possible to fill the current gaps in healthcare professionals’ education and training on sustainable diets, the authors say.
“Due to the urgency of the general adoption of sustainable diets, the key role of health professionals in such a dietary transition, and their willingness to promote sustainable diets in their daily practices, efforts should be stressed on implementing specific guidelines for these health professionals (…); Fresan U, 2023”
Educating and raising awareness of sustainable diets among healthcare professionals seems essential to strengthen their understanding of the environmental, social and economic issues associated with food choices. Proper training would enable them to pass on this knowledge to their patients and strengthen their role as agents of change towards the adoption of more sustainable diets.