Obesity and obesity-related health issues are a major challenge to the health of the nation, and medical professionals are keen to tackle them. Among the problems that obesity can cause are heart disease, strokes, diabetes and some cancers. It is also a highly costly problem for the medical industry to cope with. Trying to reduce the scale of obesity by encouraging a healthy weight in patients is not only beneficial to their short-term and long-term health, but is also far more cost-effective than treating obesity-related illnesses. Nurses who often work closely with patients both in the community and during in-patient stays are well placed to support patients in becoming and maintaining a healthy weight.
Why are obesity rates increasing?
Tackling obesity is complex partly because there is no single reason why rates are increasing. Part of it is lack of exercise. Fewer people are involved in manual labor today, and people are also driving more. Meanwhile, portion sizes are getting bigger, increasing the amount of calories consumed. There is a perception that creating healthy, balanced meals is time-consuming and so in busy lives, it’s easier to grab an unhealthy snack or indulge in fast food. The food industry also bears some responsibility by marketing food as ‘low fat’ with the implication that it is healthy, when in fact it has had the fats replaced with sugars and hydrogenated oils that are high in trans-fats, one of the least healthy types of fat. For nurses and other medical professionals who are considering ways to encourage patients to maintain a healthy weight, a number of different strategies may be needed.
Which nurses are best placed to tackle obesity?
As nurses work closely with patients, often being the medical professionals to offer the greatest continuity of care, any nurse can offer a patient lifestyle advice on maintaining a healthy weight. However, it may be that the best-placed nurses are family nurse practitioners (FNPs). These nurses work in the community, seeing patients throughout their lives. As well as having a high level of nursing skill that enables them to offer expert advice, they also know their patients and so will have a good insight into which strategies are likely to be effective for that particular patient.
After working as a registered nurse (RN) for a few years, many nurses consider how to advance their careers. There is a wide variety of options. A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a qualification that can help nurses progress in their careers. This can be studied in person or online at many universities, and achieving this qualification will look impressive when applying for promotions.
If you would like to know more about master’s in nursing benefits, even if you are not already a nurse, a good place to learn more is Elmhurst University. Elmhurst’s online Master’s Entry in Nursing Practice (MENP) program is designed to help those who hold bachelor degrees in other subjects to enter the nursing profession. After achieving a master’s degree, nurses have a wide variety options from nurse practitioner to specializations to leadership roles to research. Among the issues that they may tackle in their advanced roles is obesity and how to encourage a healthier lifestyle in their patients.
Diet and nutrition
Good diet and nutrition are often key to a healthy weight, and nurses are well placed to offer advice in their role as a patient educator. Nutrition is often misunderstood, and many patients turn to quick fixes or fad diets that promise amazing results. However, these often fail to deliver long-term weight loss and leave people lacking certain nutrients.
FNPs can provide patients with information on good nutrition. They can also help them create a healthy diet with sensible portion sizes that allows the patient to achieve a healthy weight without starving themselves. If patients are unsure where the problem lies, encouraging them to keep a food diary can be an effective way of offering insights into poor habits. Once achieved, they can also give advice on ongoing nutrition so that they remain a healthy weight. This can help the patient avoid ending up on a cycle of continually trying the latest fad diet, only to put the weight back on.
Different conditions, ages and lifestyles may require different diets to allow that person to maintain a healthy weight. The nutritional needs of children, for example, are different from those of adults. However, by encouraging a healthy diet in childhood, they have a greater chance of growing into an adult of a healthy weight. A vegetarian or vegan will need different advice from those who eat meat. Allergies may also need to be considered, with the dietary advice given to those who are gluten or lactose intolerant different from that given to people with no allergies.
Nurses today are often trained to offer holistic care where they consider the whole person, not merely a set of symptoms. So, instead of having set advice depending on whether a patient is underweight, a healthy weight, overweight or obese, they can see the patient as an individual whose lifestyle, beliefs and general health may play a part in what dietary advice is best. They may also need to consider ways to advise busy patients on meals that are both nutritious and quick to prepare, or how to eat healthily on a budget for those from a poorer economic background.
Nurses can also offer their patients advice on exercise. People who lead busy lives often feel that they do not have the time to work out, but nurses can discuss their lifestyle with them and offer suggestions of what exercise would best fit in.
These nurses will also be able to make sure that the exercise suggested is suitable for the patient. Taking on some risky or high-impact sport that results in an injury and a long recovery time will not help the patient’s weight, and so making sure that they know how to exercise safely is key.
Many people are also put off exercise, perhaps finding it dull or embarrassing, particularly if they are overweight. Nurses in the community may know what exercise groups are available and can make suggestions as to what is suitable. For example, someone who considers a gym boring may enjoy a walking group and going for weekly hikes in the countryside, or a woman in her 60s who would struggle in many exercise classes could attend an exercise group designed for older women. If people enjoy exercising and are comfortable with it, they are much more likely to do it regularly.
Often, knowing what constitutes healthy eating and the consequences of not eating healthily is not enough to allow patients to reach and maintain a healthy weight. Most of us will, after all, eat or drink something that we know is unhealthy or eat more than we should from time to time. As a treat, this not a problem. However, when someone is addicted to eating, sugar or alcohol, just knowing that it is bad for them is not enough.
Addictions often require specialist help, and for FNPs who suspect that an addiction is one of the causes of their patient’s unhealthy weight, it is likely to be necessary to refer them to a specialist or direct them to organizations that can help.
For those nurses who are particularly interested in helping patients with addictions, substance abuse nursing is a specialism that they may wish to consider. In this way, they can offer specialist help to those patients whose weight gain is a result of an addiction to eating or alcohol.
Psychology of eating
The reasons behind poor dietary choices may be more than simply lack of knowledge, a busy lifestyle or economic constraints. This is where the patient’s mental and emotional health may also play a part. A patient might, for example, be comfort eating out of loneliness, depression or boredom, or a parent might be feeding their family large quantities of desserts and candy out of guilt or because food is how they show love. As well as eating, poor mental health may prevent exercise as a patient feels unwilling to leave the home.
Nurses who consider the patient as a whole can help identify the reasons behind poor dietary choices, while mental health nurses can help treat the condition that may be causing the overeating. Often, poor diet and poor mental health go together. A better diet and regular exercise can ease some mental health symptoms, while managing poor mental health can have a positive impact on diet.
There is evidence to suggest that breastfed babies are better able to regulate their food intake, and this can reduce the risk of obesity as they grow. Children who are not obese are less likely to grow into obese adults, which means that supporting breastfeeding can have lifelong benefits.
How the baby is fed is very much a personal choice for the mother, and this is not to suggest that a new mother should be pressurized into breastfeeding. However, there are many new mothers who want to breastfeed but who struggle due to lack of support.
FNPs, nurse midwives and neonatal nurses are all nursing professionals who can have a positive impact on breastfeeding rates. They can do this by educating expectant mothers on the health benefits of breastfeeding for both mothers and babies. They can also give mothers support during the challenging first days and weeks with their new babies.
Nurses not only make an impact on the health of individuals, but they can also make positive changes at the community level. In terms of weight management and obesity prevention, this might involve setting up groups or initiatives to support different aspects of a healthy lifestyle. They can also create or distribute information in the community on diet or exercise, and they can make sure that those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds access all the help they are entitled to so that they can afford more nutritious food.
Another way that nurses can intervene on a community level is through lobbying for change. As medical professionals, they can provide an expert voice that can help influence local, federal or national policies on aspects of a healthy lifestyle. Through influencing policy, this might mean better regulation of the food industry to ensure that the community has access to accurate, easily understood nutritional information on their food, or it might result in the establishment of new, affordable leisure facilities to encourage greater levels of exercise.
While advice on diet and exercise will help many patients maintain a healthy weight and prevent obesity, some patients will have more complex problems. Some patients may need more specialist medical intervention. FNPs are able to make referrals for their patients so that they get the specialist medical treatment they need. FNPs might refer a patient to dieticians, endocrinologists, bariatric surgeons and psychologists, to name but a few. The medical reasons behind obesity are often complex and require a team effort to make a positive impact.
For those nurses whose career takes them into research, there is much that is unknown about the causes of obesity and the best ways of tackling it. Through creating and working on studies, nurses can develop new strategies to tackle obesity and help patients maintain a healthy weight. In doing so, they can have a positive impact on generations of patients.
Meeting the challenges
Obesity and obesity-related conditions seem likely to remain a significant challenge for society and the medical profession. However, if you are a nurse working closely with patients, you can make a difference through a variety of strategies to tackle poor diet, lack of exercise and the other factors that might cause weight gain.
As you advance in your career, you may take on a role such as an FNP who can offer advice and support to patients throughout their lives, or take on specialist roles such as in mental health where the causes of weight gain can often lie. Through community work and research, a nurse can make an impact on more than just the individual. Gaining additional qualifications will help you reach these more advanced roles, where every day you can make further steps on meeting the health challenges around weight.