By NICOLE GREGORY     7/27/2016

Debbie Motley, MPH RD CNSD, works every day to make sure that patients at Mission Hospital get the nutrition they need to recover from illness or surgery during their hospital stay, and long after.

As a senior clinical dietician, she has more than two decades of experience in helping patients with all kinds of conditions—such as recovering from surgery or stroke, or suffering from heart disease or diabetes—regain strength and health through nutrition.

Research continues to show that diet can play a major role in disease prevention as well as recovery from illness. But Motley, who works with a nutrition team at Mission, says not everyone is willing to shift to new eating habits.

“Some patients have been eating a certain way their whole lives,” she says, and have no interest in changing. But others “are all ears, ready to listen, to find out how to be healthy.” For them, becoming seriously ill “can be a wakeup call, a chance to change old habits and reverse the damage.” For people who need to reduce risk of heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends limiting salt, saturated fats, red meat and sweets, while increasing foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, low-fat dairy, nuts and beans. This takes some planning before going to the store, and not relying on fast food for meals.


Better eating advice

Nutrition education is a big part of Motley’s work. “Mission Hospital Registered Dietitian Nutritionists are frequently called upon to share their expertise with the community,” she says. Topics such as diabetes, cardiac rehabilitation, and nutrition for cancer patients are covered.

Then there are individual patients who seek out her out for advice. Motley recently worked with a woman with osteopenia on how to increase her calcium. “Months later she said that she had reversed her condition, by just paying attention to calcium,” says Motley.

Pregnant women who’ve been diagnosed with gestational diabetes are counseled to eat a balanced diet that is low in starchy and sugary foods—for their health and that of their babies. “They’re very motivated,” says Motley of these patients.


Food as medicine

Because Motley has a Master’s degree in public health, she sees the long view of how food impacts our health. “Prevention is key,” she says. “What we eat is central to our health—and it starts in the store with what we select. I tell patients to think of the produce department almost as a pharmacy because of all the nutrients in fruit and vegetables.”

Although she has watched popular diets and “super foods” come and go, two eating principles endure: “Variety and moderation never get old,” she says.


Vitamin D check

Motley is especially proud of an important change at Mission Hospital. “A survivor of critical illness who served on our Family Council stated that she became vitamin D deficient,” explains Motley. “This led us to conduct a study on vitamin D levels in our rehabilitation patients—we found that those who have insufficient levels also have increased pain and disability. Because of this research, we now check the vitamin D level on every patient who comes through the door and replace his or her vitamin D accordingly. This can help them better perform their activities. “

Information about food and diet is available through many media, which is why Motley recommends seeking out reliable sources. “Be skeptical of what you read on Internet,” she says. “Check out the American Heart Association (heart.org), the American Diabetes Association (diabetes.org) or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (eatright.org).”

If you still have questions? “When in doubt, contact an registered dietitian in your area,” she says.