How working with a registered dietitian can help during cancer treatment

November 9, 2021 in Complementary & Integrative Medicine  •  By Michael Scott, ND, MSA
registered dietitian

Nutrition can make a positive difference in the wellbeing of people who are undergoing cancer treatment. We talked with Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, clinical dietitian and owner of the virtual private practices, Champagne Nutrition® to find out more about this topic. In addition to her work with patients, Ms. Hultin serves as adjunct faculty at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health teaching master’s level nutrition students. Her areas of expertise include vegetarian nutrition, integrative oncology, and responsible supplementation.

Pinnacle Care (PC): What is a registered dietitian and what are some of the important things people may not know about the field?

Ginger Hultin (GH): Registered dietitians are allied health professionals, like speech and language pathologists and physical therapists, and we’re very highly trained. All registered dietitians have a degree in nutrition. It can be confusing because there are people out there who practice nutrition but are not registered dietitians. As a result, you don’t know what credentials or training they have. Working with a registered dietitian ensures that you’re working with a qualified provider.

The biggest challenge is that there are a lot of opinions, myths, and trends surrounding nutrition. What I hear from most people is that they’re not sure what information to trust when it comes to their nutrition. However, the reality is that nutrition is a science. Registered dietitians have the expertise to provide clinical recommendations. Working with a registered dietitian takes the guesswork out of your care.

A lot of people have misconceptions about dietitians. They think we’re the food police and we put people on strict diets. Actually, the majority of what we do is liberalizing diets and getting patients to eat more and different types of food–helping you to eat better in a way that you enjoy. Most dietitians chose this profession because they love food.

PC: When should a person with a cancer diagnosis contact a registered dietitian?

GH: Early nutritional intervention for all people diagnosed with cancer is important. As soon as a person gets diagnosed, they should be meeting with a dietitian. They should ask their doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian so they can have one on their team throughout their cancer journey.

PC: What’s your first conversation with a patient usually like?

GH: The work that dietitians do is deeply personalized. I want to know everything about your personal history, including what you eat, your weight, and where you are in your cancer journey. I also want to know what foods you like and what’s culturally important to you when it comes to your diet. We talk about the side effects you’re experiencing such as nausea, weight loss, and taste changes. These are called nutrition impact symptoms and there are specific methods of intervention to treat them.

PC: What are some of the interventions you use to treat nutrition impact symptoms?

GH: Dietitians practice medical nutrition therapy, which address a host of symptoms a patient could be experiencing. The really interesting thing about nutrition during cancer care is that it changes frequently, sometimes week by week. One of the major tools I rely on is helping people make meal plans. These can change quickly depending on where a patient is in their treatment and the symptoms they’re experiencing.

PC: What other types of interventions, conversations, and supports are involved when a patient works with a dietitian?

GH: I look at the way your medications might be affecting you nutritionally and talk about vitamins and minerals that you need. I also look at your nutrition-related lab test results to see how they’re affecting your health. And I spend a lot of time answering my patient’s questions.

PC: If someone is looking for a registered dietitian, what are the key things they should be asking before they choose a practitioner?

GH: It’s important to ask what someone’s experience and background are and if they’ve worked with other people with cancer before. Patients should also ask about the dietitian’s approach to treatment. It’s important to make sure your values align with your practitioner’s. For example, if you value integrative care, you should look for an integrative dietitian.

PC: What differentiates an integrative dietitian practitioner from a more conventionally focused one?

GH: Integrative practitioners take more a functional approach to nutrition. It’s not just about food. It’s also about stress, sleep, and physical activity. We think about the patient as a whole.

PC: Do you also help connect people with other providers to help them with things like sleep, stress, and physical activity?

GH: I make those referrals constantly. I often make referrals to provide people with mental health support, sleep studies, and physical or occupational therapy.

PC: What are some of the misconceptions people have about nutrition during cancer treatment?

GH: Some people think that what you eat doesn’t matter. That’s just not true. There’s solid scientific evidence that working with a dietitian and focusing on nutrition can help reduce treatment-related side effects. It can help keep patients in treatment and out of the hospital.

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