Pediatricians Have “Fragmented” Nutrition Knowledge

Do these guys know anything about nutrition?

“Ask your pediatrician.” That’s the mantra women hear over and over once we become moms. If you have questions on anything baby or child, it’s always “ask your pediatrician”.

Okay, here’s a twist… Just don’t ask about nutrition. It turns out that pediatricians may not know much more about nutrition – perhaps the single most powerful driver of your child’s health and well-being – than you do. It’s widely lamented that nutrition is marginalized in physicians’ training. The authors of Nutrition In Pediatrics (2008) wrote “the teaching of nutrition in medical schools is fragmented at best [and] appears to be entirely unsatisfactory”. A 2006 published report described efforts to encourage medical students to consider studying it. The solution touted in this report was a “ten hour workshop” (it was optional).  By comparison, my RD (registered dietitian) credential required 900 nutrition-specific hours of rotations in hospitals, clinics, and health departments, plus dozens of credit hours in undergraduate and graduate health and nutrition sciences.

But pediatricians must pick up this knowledge somewhere, right? Well… An older study (1975) found that “physicians learn about nutrition haphazardly”. Twenty years later, another study pegged pediatricians at about a C level (some as low as a D grade) for infant feeding knowledge. What about 2010? I checked the pediatric residency curriculum requirements for the Harvard-affiliated MassGeneral Hospital for Children, one of the world’s top training programs for pediatrics.

The word “nutrition” isn’t even on the page.

With deeper digging around their site, I unearthed a page for the Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition Fellowship, an expertise that specialist physicians may pursue. But this is years’ of optional study and practice beyond what a general practice pediatrician gets – even though it covers basic topics like how to diagnose food allergies. In fact, nutrition is so absent from our pediatric health care landscape that it once triggered a peculiar phone call to me from a claims adjustor, on behalf of one of my patients. The call went like this:

Insurance Company: “Hello this is so and so insurance company calling in regard to your patient John Doe, age x.”

Me: “Yes.”

Insurance: “What are you?”

Me: “Beg your pardon?”

Insurance: “What type of provider are you?”

Me: “I’m a licensed registered dietitian.”

Insurance: “So what is that? What is the claim for? Is that physical therapy?”

Oy vey.

How nutrition – arguably the single most important thing to get right during pregnancy, infancy, and childhood – became an elective in an obscure pediatric specialty is a whole other blog topic.  But it remains a long established fact that healthy nutrition during pregnancy and early infancy lays the foundation for learning, growth, brain and whole body development, and IQ for years to come. For all babies and kids at any age, it affects sleep pattern, behavior, cognitive ability, attention, focus, and of course, growth again. It’s complex, and intertwined with every disease condition now saddling this generation of kids like never before. From asthma to autism, food allergies to ADHD, growth failure to obesity, diabetes to epilepsy, parents these days have a lot of nutrition questions that their pediatricians can’t answer.

That’s why registered dietitians specializing in children’s health are a resource you may want to know about. Here are a few examples of what a registered dietitian can do for you that a pediatrician doesn’t know how to do, doesn’t have time to do, or doesn’t want to do:

–        Help you collect and troubleshoot an accurate food intake on your child. What a child likes to eat, refuses to eat, or how strong his appetite is are all diagnostic clues for dietitians – clues that may save you time and money on lab tests or unnecessary specialist referrals.

–        Separate problems that are easily treated with nutrition tools from problems that need referral to an MD specialist.

–        Tap expertise on breastfeeding, preemie feeding, specialized infant formulas, food allergy or intolerance in infancy, or toddler feeding challenges.

–        Identify clinical signs and symptoms that signal nutrition problems, and tell you exactly how to fix them with the right nutrition intervention.

–        Discern whether or not your child is actually getting the right amount of food every day, growing as expected or not, or needing more of certain types of foods or nutrients.

–        Help you choose effective supplements and decide whether your child should use them.

–        Strategize with you on recipes, lunches, snacks, and meals that work for your household.

–        Connect you with special diet resources and practicalities of all sorts, from ketogenic diets for seizure control to diets for multiple food allergies (like GF CF diet, or diets that also omit egg, nuts, or soy) to strategies to either grow and gain more weight, or lose weight, that are safe and effective for kids.

It’s a matter of when, not if, nutrition expertise will infiltrate our pediatric health care system. Parents need it, seek it, and are very happy when they see their children thrive once it is applied. If your pediatrician is not answering your nutrition questions, find more expertise through your state dietetic association, which can refer you to dietitian experts in pediatric nutrition. You may also find help from naturopathic doctors, who study more nutrition in their training than MDs typically do. When working with a naturopath, check for long experience working with infants and children. Or, start with my books:

Special Needs Kids Eat Right: Strategies To Help Kids On The Autism Spectrum Focus, Learn, and Thrive

Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free: Nutrition-Focused Tools To Minimize Meds and Maximize Health and Well Being.

Using Supplements Effectively: What Works, What Doesn’t

When do kids need supplements?

If you’re reading this, then you have probably already discovered, hopefully with some guidance from your team of health care providers, that your child has a nutrition problem. Or maybe you’ve come to suspect there’s a deficit for some nutrients in your child. Should you fix it with a supplement? Does that work? What’s the best way to use those?

These are important questions for children with special needs like diabetes, food allergies, asthma and inflammatory conditions, developmental concerns like Down’s syndrome or autism spectrum disorders, inherited metabolic disorders, seizures, or growth and feeding problems. As many as 60% of children with special needs have nutrition problems that can potentially impair their functioning, learning, growth, or development (1). It has been known for decades that keeping children well nourished, whether they have special needs or not, helps them reach their functional potential, by supporting learning, growth, and development.

Supplements may fit into this, and part of my job as a pediatric dietitian is figuring out if, when, and how they do. This is something to discern based on individualized nutrition assessment. I take into account several pieces: Medical history, signs and symptoms, a food diary, a child’s growth history, circumstances of the child’s gestational period, delivery, and early infancy, and so on. The last piece to fill in the blanks would be lab data, because lab data alone can’t describe a child’s nutrition status. Here are some tips to help you use supplements more effectively. More tips are in my book Special Needs Kids Eat Right (2009, Penguin/Perigee) which you can pick up in most bookstores or libraries, or order via your favorite on line bookseller.

– Kids need food! In fact, they need much more food per pound than adults. If an adult were to eat what a toddler needs per pound, that adult would need 8,000-10,000 calories per day just to maintain normal weight. Giving lots of supplements without enough food means your child will probably not be able to use those supplements as intended. So, before buying supplements, do the footwork to give your child adequate and nutritious foods. How to do this for picky eaters with special needs is covered in Special Needs Kids Eat Right.
– Supplements don’t fix problems caused by inadequate food intake in kids. Anxiety, insomnia, irritability, rage/reactivity, behavior, low muscle tone, fatigue, cognitive difficulties, frequency of infections or illnesses, and school performance are all affected by total food intakes in children. Give a balance of healthy fats and oils, clean carbohydrates that aren’t too sugary, and easy to digest proteins every day.
– If you’ve been given a list of supplements to buy based on lab results, beware. Giving a pill for each lab finding out of reference range is a cumbersome, ineffective strategy, in my experience. For nutrition interventions to work well, children need the right amount of food, foods they can digest well, and good digestion and absorption. Your provider can help you assess whether your child needs to repair digestion and absorption before giving supplements.
– Rule out bowel infections in your child with your health care provider before beginning a complex supplement regimen. Remember, whatever you feed your child will be eaten by his resident bowel bacteria first. New research is emerging to describe how important this bowel flora can be – from helping us prevent inflammatory conditions (2), to encoding our own GI tracts with the skill to make digestive enzymes (3). Other research shows that unhealthy bowel bacteria can impact behavior or even seizures in children (4, 5) – making it all the more crucial to balance this piece before using supplements that might “fertilize” the wrong bowel flora.

Those are just a few reasons why supplements need to be worked into a total care plan for your child, rather than given without thoughtful strategy. Work with your health care providers to get it right; given in the right total context, the right supplements can work very well for children. If you need more help and information, contact me or schedule an appointment at


1. Nutrition In The Prevention and Treatment of Disease, 2nd ed. Ann Coulston and Carol Boushey, Eds. Elsevier Academic Press. Burlington, MA and London, UK: 2008

2. Maslowski KM et al. Regulation of inflammatory responses by gut microbiota and chemoattractant receptor GPR43. Nature 2009 Oct 29;461(7268):1282-6.

3. Hehemann JH et al. Transfer of carbohydrate-active enzymes from marine bacteria to Japanese gut microbiota Nature 2010 April 8;464 (7269):908-912

4. MacFabe DF et al. Neurobiological effects of intraventricular propionic acid in rats: Possible role of short chain fatty acids on the pathogenesis and characteristics of autism spectrum disorders Behavioural Brain Research 2007;176:149–169

5. Herawati R et al. Colony count candida albicans of stool in autism spectrum disorders. Clinical Pathology and Medical Laboratory, Airlangga University E-Journal 13(1):November-2006