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Dial-up dietitians ready with info, advice

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The impatient restaurant server towers over you waiting for you to order lunch, but even though you know you're holding up your table, you hesitate, unsure of what menu choice is the most healthful.

Or perhaps your infant daughter shuts her mouth tight and throws a tantrum every time you try to feed her vegetables.

In either scenario, you wish you had some sort of on-call nutrition expert who could answer your questions on the spot.

Registered dietitian Coralee Hill hasn't tended to any "panic situations" yet, but she's ready to take your call when you need nutrition help -- whatever the kind.

Hill heads Dial-a-Dietitian, a free phone service that offers nutrition advice to Manitobans.

The service -- operated by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and funded by Manitoba Health -- costs $150,000 annually.

"We can get calls about anything and everything," says Hill, who is one of two dietitians who answers calls out of the provincial call centre, located at Misericordia Health Complex. The number is 788-8248 in Winnipeg and 1-877-830-2892 outside the city.

"It could be anything from a food safety standpoint. It could be a new diagnosis, high cholesterol, diabetes. It could be a mother calling to find out how to feed her infant child. It could be a wife calling about their spouse or about an elderly parent. It can be any spectrum, any condition related to food, eating and just healthy eating behaviours."

She also handles calls related to TeleCARE, a separate provincial phone service that helps patients manage heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

The province launched Dial-a-Dietitian in February 2010. A Misericordia Health Complex spokesman says the program's dietitians fielded 1,300 calls in 2010. She says call volume doubled in 2011 to 2,600.

Most of the callers are women between the ages of 55 and 65 who are calling about their own health. The phone service is modelled after similar programs in British Columbia and Ontario.

Hill says she might answer two Dial-a-Dietitian calls in a day -- or 20. She is surprised that New Year's resolution season and national news stories about nutrition don't necessarily fuel noticeable spikes in calls.

"There's really no trends that I've noticed over time," she says, noting that even when the KFC's cholesterol-laden, headline-grabbing Double-Down sandwich came to Canada there was little reaction.

Hill has come to know some of her tele-clients, some who are frequent or repeat callers asking the same questions over and over about anxiety and eating.

"They might have more concerns about food additives or (be) skeptical about what's in the food," says Hill. "People might be anxious because they've got a new diagnosis. So they can't maybe wait to see the doctor. Or they don't have an appointment until next month. Or they really want to have the information... now."

She says she directs callers with weight-loss questions to Canada's Food Guide, keeping the emphasis off the "number on the scale" and more towards making lifestyle changes.

All inquiries are confidential, though the on-call dietitian offers to create a personal file on each caller so the service is more personalized.

A Winnipeg-based blogger who belongs to, an online weight-loss community, posted her experiences with Dial-a-Dietitian. "Ended up talking to a dietitian on the phone for a half-hour though. Not only is she mailing me info but she told me where I could go where a dietitian was free," wrote LORIV5 in her blog.

Louise Hébert-Saindon, executive director of the Youville Centre, says her facility's free dietitian service is popular and it's difficult to keep up with the demand of clients, many newly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

People with Type 2 diabetes can control their ailment and can even stave off life-threatening health complications through a healthy, lower-carbohydrate diet.

Hébert-Saindon says that last year, 8,000 clients visited her nurses, counsellors and dietitians at Youville Centre .

An appointment with a registered dietitian at a private practice can cost $100 an hour.

She says Dial-a-Dietitian does, to some degree, ease the burden on her clinic as well as offer a valuable service to the public, although phoning a dietitian does have its shortcomings.

"It doesn't have the same bang for your buck as face-to-face," says Hébert-Saindon. "A lot of people associate quality care with face time. But it does certainly meet the need of the isolated senior who has a big snowbank in front of their door and who needs to know how to manage their diabetes."


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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2012 D1

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