Leave it to a nutritionist to say that much of wellness and disease management relates to the nutritional intake of a patient. But for Leigh Anne Kamerman Burns, MS, RDN, after 27 years in nutrition healthcare (the last 25 at LSU) she has worked in the field long enough to experience its truth.
“I believe it’s the building block of all medical care,” Burns says. “In many diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, if patients don’t change their eating habits, then it is really hard to control their disease.”
Poor nutrition leads to worsening conditions, increased medication and often new medical issues.
As a result, her main goals as a nutritionist focus on wellness and quality of life.
“I learned really young that if we could improve nutrition and could help people understand how to be well, that we didn’t have to see as many sick people,” she says.
As for quality of life, she teaches that eating habits including foods too high in sugars, fats and salts can wreak havoc with a patient’s wellness goals and their ability to stay active. An obese patient will have a harder time getting around; a diabetic might have eyesight or circulation complications. At the very least, these patients are going to spend more time in their doctors’ offices.
But with so many gastronomic delights in the New Orleans area, encouraging healthy eating can be a tough sell. “You have to meet people where they are in their willingness to change,” Burns says. “You can’t come in and say, ‘You cannot eat that,’ but maybe they would be willing to find changes that work for them. Make it realistic. If you’re going to eat fatty food today, then tomorrow you might want to make better selections.”
Burns specializes in nutrition challenges — like with cancer and HIV patients — and nutrition for critically ill and chronic disease. She understands that what a very sick patient eats can make a lot of difference in how well they tolerate their treatments and manage the side effects.
She also gets a great number of referrals from endocrinologists and internal medicine physicians. “I see a tremendous amount of support from my LSU colleagues in medicine and surgery as buy-in on nutrition to improve disease management and improve healing in surgical outcomes,” Burns says.
On choosing a career in nutrition: “I didn’t want to give shots,” Burns jokes. “My mother was a nurse; my dad’s a doctor. I was raised eating the four food groups. I wasn’t raised eating Southern. It stuck with me for the most part. I had an interest in health as a young woman … I played many sports. I learned early that fitness and nutrition are a very important part of the healthcare scene.”
Proudest accomplishment: A cancer screening program (now 24 years running) called Partners in Wellness through LSU Shreveport now provides mobile mammography and wellness in north Louisiana. She also speaks to patients and providers across the country and in Canada about nutritional management of neuroendocrine tumors. “Like many of us at LSU, I have worn a lot of hats,” she says.
Success in numbers: “In St. Charles, I’m offering nutrition classes where we work together as a group and give each other support,” Burns says. “Hearing how others have made changes or been successful … I even learn things sometimes! You don’t have to be 100 percent all 100 percent of the time. We can reach some of these goals together.”
Other tips for healthy eating: Burns says that each patient has specific requirements, but, in general, we can all benefit from the basics:
- Know your food groups and how much of each to place on your plate. (choosemyplate.gov)
- Learn about portion control and preparing ahead to make better decisions on busy weeknights.
- Use more plant-based food items, especially foods that are deep green, yellow or orange like spinach, acorn squash and sweet potatoes.
- Choose lean choices of protein. Seafood this time of year is an especially good choice. With meats, the cuts like rounds or loins tend to be leaner. Nuts, beans and meatless meals are a good way to cut back, while still getting protein.
- Regulate blood sugars by knowing about better carbohydrates — and the right amount of them — for your body.
- Learn how to use herbs, spices, fruits and veggies to season food without using all the salt.
- Don’t drink all your calories. Alcohol and fruit juices are concentrated sugars.
- Prepare food without frying. Not only is it more healthful; it’s easier and less mess.
- Teach your children healthy eating while they are young. “The best place to start is before it becomes a problem,” Burns says.
Undergraduate: Northeast Louisiana University, BS Home Economics and Nutrition
Graduate School: Louisiana Tech, Master’s in Nutrition and Human Ecology
Fellowship: Docere Teaching Excellence focusing on Academic Education, LSU School of Medicine New Orleans
St. Charles Clinic 3rd floor
3700 St. Charles Ave., 3rd floor
New Orleans, LA