Dec 1, 2023

Food for thought: Annual symposium highlights nutrition as key ingredient in patient care

Education, Research, Resources
Professor Heather Keller at podium
Photo by Diana Ghidanac
Professor Heather Keller at the Food as Medicine Update
By Blake Eligh

The 2023 Food as Medicine Update, recently hosted by the University of Toronto and Unity Health Toronto, drew 300 health-care professionals, researchers and learners interested in the pivotal role of nutrition in patient care.

The annual education series, now in its seventh year, aims to address health-care knowledge gaps by providing the latest information about clinical research in therapeutic diets, disease prevention and treatment.

The series is organized by U of T’s department of nutritional sciences, the Joannah & Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition, and Continuing Professional Development, together with Unity Health’s St. Michael’s Hospital.

This year’s conference focused on “Nutrition, Functional Foods, and Supplements for Health Optimization,” and featured researchers from across Canada and the United States who discussed their study of nutrition-related topics, including geriatric malnutrition, neurometabolic disorders, epidemiology, eating disorders and nutraceuticals.

Photo of Professor Dean Ornish
Professor Dean Ornish

The event also offered the chance to hear from globally renowned researchers such as American lifestyle medicine expert Dean Ornish, who provided the 2023 keynote address.

Ornish, a distinguished clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and at the University of California, San Diego, is the founder and president of the non-profit Preventative Medicine Research Institute. He is also a best-selling author and the innovator of the Ornish Diet for Heart Health.

Ornish’s clinical research focuses on the effects of nutrition and lifestyle changes in halting, slowing or reversing chronic conditions such as prostate cancer and coronary heart disease. His current research explores the potential of lifestyle modifications in altering the course of early-stage Alzheimer's disease.

Grounded by flight delays, Ornish took the virtual stage to share insights from decades of research into the impact of nutrition on improving patient outcomes.

"Eat well, move well, stress less and love well," Ornish said, reiterating the core principles of his program. Endorsed by notable figures, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the program prioritizes a plant-based diet, moderate exercise, meditation and social support.

Ornish also underscored a key approach for health professionals to take in guiding patients toward optimal health. “Avoid fearmongering, and focus on the ‘whys’ that will positively motivate each patient towards good health,” he advised.

In recognition of his exceptional contributions to advancing nutritional medical education, Ornish was honoured with the Rundle-Lister Lectureship in Transformative Nutritional Medical Education. Established in 2017, the annual award acknowledges the contributions of honourees in emphasizing the significance of nutrition within patient care.

Seminar discussions followed Ornish’s keynote, and covered a range of topics, including the safety and benefits of soy foods, the nutritional needs of elderly patients to ensure better recovery and rehabilitation from illness, and the effects of nutritional supplementation to help with obesity amongst older adults. Findings from a new federal study highlighted youth and teens as the Canadian demographic who are most deficient in Vitamin D.

In the final panel session, Debra Katzman, a senior associate scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children, discussed on her research into Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). Katzman, also a professor in Temerty Medicine’s department of paediatrics and paediatric lead with Eating Disorder Ontario, provided an overview of the distinct patient profile of ARFID.

Unlike other eating disorders, which may be underscored by issues of weight, or body shape and size, ARFID is characterized by disinterest or fear of specific foods, or eating in general. It can lead to malnutrition, and low body weight. Katzman stressed the importance of distinguishing ARFID from other eating disorders, such as anorexia, emphasizing the need for unique treatment approaches.