Article Date: 9/1/2009

You Are What You Eat

You Are What You Eat

Integrate nutritional education and supplements into your practice.

KENNETH A. YOUNG, O.D., Brentwood, Tenn.


At one time or another, we've all heard our mothers say: “You are what you eat.” At no time has this been truer than today. The Standard American Diet (S.A.D.), or Western Diet, is characterized by high intakes of red meats, processed sugars, saturated fats, refined grains, dairy fat and eggs.

Just a generation ago, it wasn't uncommon for families to raise their own fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. Most produce was fresh and grown locally. Today, however, 70% to 80% of all food consumed is processed, according to the British organization, Nutrition Matters. These changes have led to a lack of proper nutrition and health problems in all age groups. Specifically, processed foods lose much of the vitamins and minerals necessary for normal growth, function and health. Those vitamins and minerals are essential to aid and maintain a strong immune system.

Where you're needed

As optometrists, we have an obligation to share with our patients the importance of acquiring and maintaining good nutrition, as valid clinical evidence reveals it plays a vital role in ocular conditions, such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), diabetes, dry eye and cataracts. In the case of cataracts, for instance, we know that antioxidants and vitamins, such as C, play a role in their prevention and formation.

Still, despite all the nutritional information we can provide patients, many will never change their dietary habits. By incorporating nutraceuticals and vitamins into our practices, however, we can provide the vitamins, antioxidants and the essential fatty acids/omega 3s (which may be lacking in a patient's diet) that promote good eye health, while at the same time creating an additional revenue stream for our practices.

Willing patients

I've found that when you educate patients that supplements are available to help prevent or reduce their risk of eye disease or alleviate a current ocular condition, many are eager to learn about them.

For example, patients with family members or friends who have AMD are willing to do anything to prevent the onset of the disease, as they see the toll it has taken and continues to take on their close ones.

Further, dry eye patients are eager to find ways to increase their comfort and alleviate their symptoms.

To educate yourself about nutritional requirements, talk to a dietician or nutritionist. These professionals can provide an overall picture of the daily nutrition requirements for most patients. Also, consider inviting one of these supplement specialists to give a nutrition presentation at your next staff meeting.

Don't overlook the importance of a knowledgeable staff. Staff may spend more time with patients than with you. Provide each employee with the same knowledge — it reflects an office that is well educated and well run.

Now, follow these steps to educate patients about supplements and your ability to dispense them:

• Ask supplement providers for educational brochures and displays to help better educate your patients. Display POP-printed materials in exam rooms and the reception area. Further, consider placing visual systems that broadcast educational videos in your reception room — another great way to present information while patients wait for their appointments.

• Invest a couple of minutes of your chair time to discuss the benefits of specific supplements, and encourage patients to use their favorite search engine to read pertinent studies, such as the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) and AREDS II.

• Provide educational handouts or follow-up e-mails to patients that include links to appropriate nutrition-related Web sites.

The practice benefit

Half of all Americans reach for some form of dietary supplement on a daily basis. In fact, last year, American consumers spent $23 billion on nutritional supplements.

If patients are going to spend money on supplements, we, as their primary-care optometrist, can help them make informed decisions about products, using, for instance, formularies in addressing their unique nutritional needs. Since so many supplements are available on the market, they'll greatly appreciate our expertise and recommendations. And, this appreciation won't only likely lead to increased practice revenue, but also increased patient loyalty and referrals.

In terms of practice revenue garnered from the sales of supplements alone, consider the following scenario: One patient purchases one supplement bottle each day at a profit of $20. If an average work month has 22 days, the practice would realize a $440 monthly profit, or $5,280 per year. If the single bottle supply lasts two months, each patient would return six times per year to make purchases, thus increasing the bottom line by $31,680 per year. These benefits multiply in a model that includes multi-doctor or group practices.

Choose the right product

Currently, many nutritional products target ocular health alone. Many of these were developed based on the research that came out of FDA-sponsored studies, such as AREDS. As a result recommend products based on solid clinical evidence, and make sure they meet the highest standards and are of pharmaceutical grade. Remember, not all products are created equal, so caution patients about generic and “big box” brands, which may contain “fillers.” Finally, stand behind the product(s) you recommend and sell. Assure patients you'll offer a refund for any that may cause problems, such as gastric distress.

Don't forget the basics

While dietary supplements are useful, it's crucial you encourage patients to maintain a good, healthy diet of whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables (e.g. the dark leafy greens and deeper-colored varieties) and to eat lean meats and fish when possible. After all, a few moments of prevention may mean a lifetime of good health and vision. OM

Dr. Young practices at the Primary Eyecare Group in Brentwood, Tenn. You can send him an e-mail at

Optometric Management, Issue: September 2009