Making better choices: Registered dietitian nutritionist shares the importance of diet to heart health

February 9, 2021  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees, ,
Faith Mather, R.D.N.

February is American Heart Month — giving faculty, staff and learners an opportunity to commit themselves to lifestyle changes that will protect their heart health.

“Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., but there are things you can do every day to maintain your cardiovascular fitness,” said Faith Mather, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) at Michigan Medicine. Mather and her team help patients maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle by providing them with diet and nutritional advice and care.

Mather recently sat down with Headlines to discuss her role and the advice she has for employees who want to be as heart-healthy as possible!

Q: What made you want to become an RDN?

FM: I wanted to become an RDN when I learned how impactful food and diet can have on both acute and chronic diseases. My father struggled with type 1 diabetes and ultimately passed away at a young age due to complications. He had all the resources and knew the buzzwords about “carbohydrate counting.” However, knowing what I do now about the medical nutrition therapy for patients with diabetes, it is clear to me he really did not understand his diet. I truly believe had my father had his diet explained and questions answered by an RDN, he would still be with us today.

Many RDNs have a personal reason for why they went into the field, but two things are invariably true for all of them: we love food and we love science.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

FM: A typical day starts around 7 a.m. After a quick review of emails, I open MiChart and get to work. I determine which patients I will assess and meet with. After I have prioritized my day, I usually attend ICU rounds for a few hours (if I am working on-site). Then throughout the day, I answer pages, modify enteral nutrition orders, and interview and educate patients to meet their nutritional needs. In addition to our patient care responsibilities, many RDNs serve on committees within our department (PFANS) as well as with our medical teams and units. We also participate in Michigan Medicine’s and the School of Public Health’s dietetic internships.

Q: How do you partner with clinicians to make diet/nutrition part of a patient’s care plan?

FM: An RDN is brought onto a patient’s care team in one of three ways: a consult after a patient has answered “yes” to a set of screening questions asked by a bedside nurse, a formal consult placed by the medical team requesting RDN intervention, or if the patient has been in the hospital for seven days. We will then gather subjective and objective data from MiChart, the medical team, and patient and family interviews. For those at high nutritional risk, the RDN often checks on the patient multiple times throughout the week to ensure the nutritional goals are being met.

Q: So how do you get patients to stick to a plan?

FM: I find that the patients who struggle to stick to a prescribed diet or plan often do not understand why they have been asked to follow this diet or what harm will come to them if they do not. Sometimes, the effects of a poor diet are not immediate, which can make following a prescribed diet seem cumbersome and useless.

So I explain the physiologic processes behind a certain recommendation. For example, patients with heart failure need to follow a low-sodium and fluid-restricted diet because their heart is no longer pumping blood efficiently, resulting in less blood reaching the kidneys to be filtered. When the blood isn’t filtered properly, patients experience fluid overload and shortness of breath. A low-sodium diet helps manage these symptoms, keeping them out of the hospital. Something both the patient and clinician can get behind!

Although “diet” is the term we use, the long-term goal as RDNs is to help patients make lifestyle changes, which we know happens through small, incremental changes over a period of time. I strive to find small, individual changes a patient can make and stay with.

Q: What part of your job do you like the most?

FM: My job has so many different aspects to it that it’s almost impossible to choose! In terms of patient care, I get the most joy when I see a light bulb go off for a patient during an education session or when I can follow up with a patient who has implemented changes and can see a clear benefit from them. I also love being surrounded by incredibly smart, forward-thinking clinicians from all lines of work who are always happy to jump to help those around them. I am constantly learning from my colleagues, which makes me a better clinician.

Q: For those wanting to make better choices, how would you guide them when considering all the different diets out there. How do people know what is right for them?

FM: Everyone has very different needs depending on their health, food and cultural preferences. When considering a diet, I think it’s important to determine what your goals are and how the diet will help you achieve those goals.

As a general rule, any diet lower in fried foods and saturated fat will generally lead to weight loss, which may or may not be healthy for you. Additionally, many people lead healthy lives on a vegetarian diet. However, if you are eating primarily cheese pizza and pasta, you may not really have a healthy diet. There is one rule that seems to always hold true to me: If a diet requests you to cut out an entire food group, it’s not sustainable or truly healthy (unless prescribed by a medical professional for a medical disease) and will result in your body missing needed micronutrients.

Q: Finally, do you have any special messages for employees — those working at home or those working in a clinical or lab setting? How important is maintaining a healthy diet during these stressful times?

FM: With the closing of gyms and the colder weather, it may feel difficult to keep your health at the forefront. But it is very important to continue to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and stay hydrated!

While working from home, it can also be easy to wander to the refrigerator or pantry — so try to keep your daily routines and resist snacking out of boredom and meet your exercise goals. Remember, we need to take care of ourselves to ensure we can continue to take care of our patients and families!