School Teaches Healthcare Providers About Nutrition

By Jess Higgins Kelley, MNT

After working one-on-one directly with nutrition clients for years, I realized there was a significant gap in nutrition training for medical providers, especially in oncology settings. It was surprising how rarely practitioners in conventional oncology talked about diet, despite one in three newly-diagnosed patients querying their doctor about diet. 

Medical doctors receive virtually no nutrition training as part of their medical school curriculum. Meanwhile, Registered Dietitians learn a more conventional approach to nutrition, and additional oncology certification requires more testing. This is where we saw a big gap and a huge opportunity – many medical and health professionals are eager for more nutrition information to help their cancer patients, so the Oncology Nutrition Institute was born out of consumer and practitioner demand.

In creating the Oncology Nutrition Institute and the 250-Hour Oncology Nutrition Consulting Certification Program (ONC), we share evidence in favor of adding nutrition therapy into standard of cancer care for qualified professionals. One of the most rewarding aspects of training healthcare providers is the “ah-ha” moment when they learn how much adding therapeutic nutrition can help improve a patient’s quality and quantity of life. I love talking with our students – especially the ones primarily entrenched in the conventional allopathic medical model. 

Hearing them say how their patients had improved when they began adding nutrition recommendations makes it all worth it. 

Further satisfaction comes from watching the research catch up with what we have been doing clinically with a metabolic approach, then sharing that information with our students, who can translate it into patient care. I love following the research, being an educator, and helping practitioners understand and gain confidence when working with their patients. As a school, we have anticipated a prevalent dismissal of a metabolic approach, and we arm students with hundreds of research papers so they can properly cite their recommendations. Penetrating the tall, strong wall of conventional oncology has been an uphill battle, but I feel like the tide is shifting a bit. This is allowing us to offer people with cancer greater access to complementary therapies like nutrition.

One of the most exciting changes in the field of metabolic oncology nutrition I’ve seen in the past few years is the advancement of nutrigenomic testing, which basically looks at how nutrition and genes interact. Understanding nutrigenomics can help medical professionals evaluate individual nutritional needs and better personalize diet recommendations to achieve desired health outcomes. Personalized nutrition is at the core of our curriculum.

One example of this really shines when constructing ketogenic dietary therapies. Years ago, when we were working with clients, some people’s cholesterol levels increased significantly on a ketogenic diet, and we would be scratching our heads wondering why it happened to one person and not another. Today, we can look at different lipid metabolism genes and know how to customize the composition of fatty acids in an individual’s ketogenic diet. This is a powerful tool for a healthcare provider, allowing us to be more proactive with nutrition therapy vs. trying a new approach and reacting to potentially undesirable outcomes.

The ability to safely integrate a ketogenic diet is key. It is our frontline dietary therapy in the oncology setting. Studies show that people with various types of cancer respond to it very well, as well as to other metabolic dietary therapies like fasting – especially as an adjuvant to standard of cancer care. We’ve been seeing this clinically for years, and now it is becoming validated in the research. It is really exciting to help people feel better and tolerate potentially toxic treatments better than they would without nutrition on board. 

Since one of the biggest questions from new students is how to safely support individuals through conventional standard-of-care treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, our program addresses these topics extensively.

Beyond the ketogenic diet, our students need to be well-versed in many topics when it comes to safely using food as medicine. Dietary needs of cancer patients change, and individualization is critical. We teach a multitude of therapeutic diets, including low FODMAPS, GAPS, AIP, tube feeding, and soft food. 

No matter what the dietary therapy is, food quality is the overarching theme that runs through the program. 

For example, an egg from a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation farm will have a totally different nutrition profile from one that comes from a pasture-raised, organically-fed chicken. 

Therefore, our focus is always on whole foods that are grown, raised, and harvested with best practices.

Like most “alternative healthcare practitioners, many of our students end up with late-stage cancer clients. It is challenging to know where to start and where to focus first when a person is seriously ill. Thus the ONC program begins with the first ten classes focused on the terrain, giving students a comprehensive, systems-based view of the bio-individual process. This provides a clearer picture of where to go first, be it digestion, hormone balance, toxicity, or mental and emotional health. This first course is based on the book 

“The Metabolic Approach to Cancer,” which I co-wrote with Dr. Nasha Winters, ND, FABNO in 2017.

While metabolic oncology nutrition isn’t fully accepted yet, I feel the program is starting to give a voice to this field. It is exciting to pioneer a new conversation in oncology, especially when research is backing it up. It is fascinating how excited students get about learning the content. Conversely, it is challenging because our students are often the lone voice in conventional medical settings and face resistance from their institutions or peers. Because working in any element of oncology is emotionally challenging, we have some classes on self-care, which is so important. The burnout rate with these professionals is high, and we want to support our students to remain healthy themselves in mind and body so they can show up and help others.

I hope to incorporate in-person retreats for students at the school campus in Maine. Hands-on is hands-down the best education when it comes to making lifestyle changes, and we want our students to be role models for their patients. 

The more we get the message out that when people eat quality, nutrient-dense, low-glycemic, and immune-boosting food, the more it will help prevent cancer in the first place, which is the ultimate goal.

Jess Higgins Kelly is a nutrition therapist, award-winning journalist, and the founder of the Oncology Nutrition Institute. She is the Co-author of “The Metabolic Approach to Cancer.” The Oncology Nutrition Institute offers a 250-hour certification program to medical professionals that is based on comprehensive research in metabolic oncology nutrition therapy.