Healthcare professional giving nutrition consultation to patient with healthy fruit and vegetable

Food for Thought: Nutrition Basics for the Rehabilitation Professional

Healthcare professional giving nutrition consultation to patient with healthy fruit and vegetable

They say you are what you eat. And while it’s certainly cliché, it rings true. Diet plays a critical role in shaping, maintaining, and repairing the human body. Understanding nutrition basics is vital for clinicians, therapists, and healthcare professionals as they structure rehabilitation programs for their patients.

Nutrition basics

The body requires macronutrients, micronutrients, and water to sustain growth and metabolism. Macronutrients (or “macros”) include carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, while micronutrients cover vitamins and minerals. All are necessary to maintain a healthy body, though the ratios of each will vary depending on age, physical condition, lifestyle, activity levels, and other factors.

Carbohydrates: Not all are made equal

Though most comfort foods are loaded with carbohydrates, they actually serve as the body’s first fuel source. When broken down, carbs turn into monosaccharides (single sugars), disaccharides (double sugars), or polysaccharides (complex starches formed of longer saccharide chains)—all of which provide the body with energy.

In contrast with the basic sugars of simple carbs, complex carbohydrates take longer for the body to break down, releasing energy at a more consistent rate and eliminating the peaks and valleys of a sugar crash.

While fruits contain high amounts of simple sugars, they’re also paired with fiber; this helps slow down digestion, aids the intestine in expelling waste, and helps lower cholesterol (ultimately making fruits a healthier carb option).

Other good sources of complex carbs include whole grains, beans, rice, oats, and peas.

Proteins: The building blocks of life

Strung together from amino acids, proteins are necessary for building muscle mass and other tissues. Of the twenty existing amino acids, the human body cannot produce nine naturally, which means they must be obtained through diet.

Lean meats, pork, poultry, eggs, seafood, low-fat dairy, and plant-based proteins like quinoa, beans, and nuts are good sources of protein.

Fats: The good kind

In a culture where calories are cheap, abundant, and often deep-fried, fats tend to get a bad reputation. But fats—specifically essential fatty acids—are a vital macronutrient, responsible for providing energy, processing fat-soluble vitamins, and keeping the organs warm.

A healthy diet contains a balance of omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids. Like those nine essential amino acids, the body cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids on its own, requiring them instead from outside sources. Good sources include fatty fish and fish oils, flaxseeds, walnuts, and canola oil.

Related: Pediatric Feeding: Red Flags, Common Recommendations, and the GI Relationship

Micro (but mighty)

Micronutrients like vitamins (organic materials) and minerals (inorganic materials) are needed in smaller amounts than macros, but they’re no less critical to maintaining health, particularly when it comes to repairing injuries and rebuilding tissue.

Vital from A to K

Vitamins are key to the healing process. From creating scar tissue (Vitamin C) to producing collagen (Vitamin E), vitamins also help form clots (Vitamin K), maintain healthy tissues (Vitamin A), and aid metabolism (B Vitamin Complex).

While these vitamins may come from supplements, they’re also found in dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits, tomatoes, avocados, soy, eggs, meat, and fish. A good tip to remember when considering fruits and vegetables: The wider range of bright colors, the better!

From the periodic table to the kitchen table

Approximately 4% of the body’s mass consists of minerals. These include calcium, potassium, sodium, chloride, phosphorus, magnesium, sulfur, iron, copper, zinc, iodine, and others.

Together with vitamins and macronutrients, these minerals support bone regrowth and other body repairs. Minerals can be found in trace amounts in most foods, especially fruits, vegetables, and meats.

Nutrition evaluation and assessment

Maintaining a healthy diet balanced in macronutrients and micronutrients may look simple, but it is not necessarily easy. Significant factors play into everyday food choices, from culture and ethnicity to religious beliefs, income, geographic location, and familial influence.

Dietary habits can also be affected by external circumstances (a demanding work schedule, high TV consumption, or lack of access to healthy foods), as well as internal changes (pregnancy, quitting smoking, hormonal problems, dementia, or emotional distress).

Taking these factors into consideration is an important part of a patient evaluation. Equally important is the practice of setting realistic, specific, and obtainable patient goals.

Barriers to patient lifestyle adjustments

When it comes to a dietary plan, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Given the complex and often unconscious decisions that play into a patient’s nutritional choices, it should come as no surprise that many patients may approach a proposed diet change with hesitation or reluctance. Some major barriers to consider:

  • Lack of time or confidence
  • Conflicting sources of information or misleading information
  • A poor support system
  • Chronic fatigue or emotional distress
  • Language or physiological barriers
  • Dementia or cognitive disabilities

Motivating change

Providing patients with adequate nutritional information is an important step in any rehabilitation program. However, knowledge alone will not facilitate change. Patients not only must choose to change; they must also have access to adequate resources and support to follow through. This is a gap that therapists and healthcare professionals are often uniquely qualified to fill.

This article is based on the 3-hour HomeCEU course, “A Clinician’s Guide to Improving Therapeutic Outcomes: Why Is Nutrition Important?” written by Jami Cooley, RN, CNW.