As proactive employers recognize the importance of health and wellbeing, the connection between the health of an organization and the health of its workforce is getting more attention than ever before. To gain a better understanding of how virtual care can play a role in supporting the health of employees—and by extension an organization—we asked Tanya Choy, a Registered Dietitian who consults with TELUS Health Virtual Care, about her experience providing nutrition counseling virtually and how dietitians can actively contribute to people’s health and wellbeing.
What does a dietitian do? How do they differ from nutritionists?
While nutritionist and dietitian are often used interchangeably, the main difference between the two is that nutritionists and other diet coaches are under no obligation to meet enforceable education and training standards. The title “dietitian” is protected by law across Canada and “nutritionist” is also a protected title in Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, meaning in these provinces dietitian and nutritionist are equivalent.
Dietitians have a degree in foods and nutrition from an accredited university program and undergo comprehensive and rigorous training, both on the job and in universities. Dietitians work in a variety of work settings such as hospitals, community health centers, government offices and food industries.
What role do dietitians play in primary care?
Dietitians are recommended as part of evidence-based health care, especially for prevention and management of chronic conditions such as prediabetes, diabetes, heart conditions and kidney disease. Using a client-centered approach, dietitians assess the nutritional needs of individuals, and design, implement and monitor nutritional care plans.
When it comes to primary care, we can reduce the risk of certain health conditions with good nutrition and healthy eating.
Let’s look at type 2 diabetes as an example: rates in Canada have almost doubled over the past decade, and with 62% of Canadian adults having excess weight or obesity, these rates are likely to continue to rise. Adults with diabetes see their family physician twice as often, and are 3 times more likely to be hospitalized and for longer periods.
It’s estimated that over 50% of type 2 diabetes could be prevented or delayed with healthier eating and increased physical activity.
What are some less common ways someone could benefit from seeing a dietitian?
Whether it’s to improve one’s relationship with food, manage a health condition or to enhance performance in sports, working with a dietitian can help individuals meet their goals with the latest research and science available. A dietitian will provide coaching around the connection between food and health, both physical and mental, to help people feel their best at home and at work.
Dietitians can help people with:
- Treating and preventing type 2 diabetes
- Managing high cholesterol, blood pressure and weight concerns
- Allergies, intolerances and digestive issues
- Developing food skills like label reading, meal planning and cooking
- Picky eating, nutrient deficiencies and many more!
How is diet tied to health and wellbeing? What effects can a healthy diet have on a person?
Nutrition counseling improves general eating behaviours that are associated with good health; it can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 70% in adults at risk, improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels and decrease body weight.
According to the World Health Organization, an unhealthy diet is one of the primary risk factors for chronic disease. With the increasing rates of chronic diseases in adults such as diabetes and heart disease, their quality of life can be severely impacted, and this can extend into one’s personal and professional life. Chronic disease can discourage engagement in social activities and exercise, affect sleep habits and lead to mental illness such as depression. This can further spillover into one’s professional life, leading to absenteeism, decreased productivity and even short- or long-term disability.
The good news is that employers are embracing the growing desire for better nutrition as a way to improve employee health and, by extension, productivity. A balanced eating plan that focuses on nutritious foods and beverages can help ensure individuals are getting enough essential nutrients to maintain optimal health or manage health conditions.
What are some common barriers we might see as to why people aren’t seeing dietitians?
I would say the main barriers are cost, not knowing what a dietitian can provide and not knowing where or how to access one. In terms of cost, in many cases, provincial health plans don’t provide adequate coverage for nutrition services. And as employees are focusing on healthy eating to prevent chronic disease like diabetes and high blood pressure and weight management, they’re looking to their benefits plans to fill the gap in access to nutrition care.
There can be a lot of confusion when it comes to understanding nutrition, and Canadians are looking for clarity, which is where dietitians can help. We can help cut through the noise by using the science of nutrition to inform and personalize advice for every client and their unique situation.
Between improving access and educating Canadians about the benefits of meeting with a dietitian, we can create significant economic benefits for both the healthcare system and employers. In addition to helping reduce absenteeism, increasing productivity and lowering health benefits costs, we can potentially save the health care system $5.50–$99 for every $1 spent on dietetic intervention (based on New Zealand dollars).
How has virtual care impacted nutritional counseling?
Virtual care provides a safe option for those who want to socially distance, are feeling unwell or don’t have scheduling flexibility to attend an in-person appointment. There’s also the matter of convenience; being able to see a dietitian virtually, or a wide variety of medical practitioners for that matter, offers the choice and possibility to help people live their healthiest lives.
How do you approach sessions on TELUS Health Virtual Care?
Since people can meet virtually anywhere,* I let them know that with me they’re in a safe and non-judgemental space to talk about food and health, and I encourage them to find an area where they feel comfortable to speak freely. To help ensure I support them, I use a feel-good, balanced approach to eating where there are no "good" or "bad" foods.
Whether they’re looking for nutritious recipes, meal ideas or need professional guidance to address a specific health concern, my mission is to create a comprehensive plan of action to help people reach their nutrition goals.
How do you see the relationship between virtual care and access to dietitians evolving over the next 5 years?
After the pandemic and many health services moving to using virtual care, I see this service continuing to stay as part of virtual healthcare. There are of course benefits to being seen in person, but I do see the value in having virtual care options available for dietitian services, especially to make seeing a dietitian more accessible for people who have limited mobility, lack of transportation or flexibility to fit into a busy work day, or who live in a different city from their dietitian. Dietitians will continue to strive to offer the best care possible, and virtual care will be an important part of our care delivery.
*Anywhere in Canada