Adults love asking children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. Up until my freshman year of college, my faithful response was, “A veterinarian!”.
Despite my commitment to pursuing a career in veterinary medicine, I developed an interest in nutrition during my sophomore year of high school, after reading books written by health coaches and celebrities. Cooking and baking had long been a favorite pastime of mine, and applying food to the science I was learning made biology and chemistry that much more interesting.
Applying Food to the Science
A few years later, I had the opportunity to learn more about superfoods and health trends by writing for a health and wellness website. The process of translating research into recommendations excited me and publishing my work was rewarding.
Throughout those years, I continued to create digital content, diversifying my work to include recipes on my personal blog. Yet despite this acceleration into the world of nutrition and food, I knew very little about the dietetics path and did not have the heart to fully give up veterinary medicine.
During my first semester at Emory University, I took an assortment of classes, ranging from biology and chemistry to business and religion, hoping to identify a field to commit to. I quickly eliminated business, but remained unsure about the sciences. Emory offered an introductory nutrition course the following semester, and this class, both science-based and human health focused, confirmed my desire to pursue nutrition.
Unfortunately, the dietetics path requires future dietitians to be enrolled in a DPD (Didactic Program in Dietetics) as an undergraduate, or a CP (Coordinated Program in Dietetics) as a graduate student. Few universities offer DPDs, it didn’t make sense for me financially or time wise to wait until my graduate years to enroll in a CP. I re-applied to Cornell University through my guaranteed transfer option, and have been a proud Nutritional Sciences major ever since!
A few years removed from my original interest and halfway through my DPD, I’ve realized how much my understanding of nutrition and health have transformed. Though the recommendations I had originally read about are not valueless, I no longer fully align my practices and views of healthy eating with them.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read
Social media has accelerated the rate at which nutrition information, or misinformation, is spread, and I too had once believed in the diet trends it promoted. Juice cleanses are not necessary, and a gluten-free diet is not inherently healthier. One important responsibility of dietitians is to clarify misconceptions and educate about agriculture, food, body image, and the pursuit of health.
What I love about this field is that there is no one way to fulfil this responsibility – unlike veterinary medicine, where the type of work and working environments are rather limited, dietetics is more flexible.
Working with patients in a clinical setting, consulting clients in a private practice, educating customers at a food pantry, cooking as a personal chef, working for a large food producer/grocer or communicating through digital platforms are only a handful of the many ways in which a dietitian can serve. There’s no need to commit to one job, either – dietetics offers greater mobility, allowing a dietitian to spend time in one sector before exploring another, which is something, I–like I know many of you–value in a career.
Food is a connection to nearly all areas of life
My love for nutrition, however, has not displaced my love for animals. Food is a connection to nearly all areas of life; environmental sustainability and animal welfare are no exceptions. There are highly publicized ways to be more environmentally considerate and ethical, but past experiences of working with a wide variety of people have sensitized me to the individualized nature of nutrition.
Teaching at an early education center, researching with customers at a food pantry, and checking up on patients at a long-term care center have exposed me to the unique needs of different demographics.
There is no one way to eat or grocery shop. Personal counselling is one way to tailor nutrition recommendations to help someone support a healthy and environmentally conscious lifestyle, but empowering a greater audience through education is another.
Empowering a greater audience!
This past year, I assumed a didactic approach towards content creation through a new website, Food For Thought. Inspired by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, this project aims to enlighten others about the complexity of the food system through stories and images. Interviews with farmers, professors, food pantry customers, students, and entrepreneurs have personally increased my engagement with my surrounding community.
I am continually learning through this process as well, reconsidering my own values and re-calibrating my lifestyle in response to new information. In placing myself into this educational process, I hope to be better equipped to guide others in their own learning process.
Given my history working with digital platforms, communications is certainly an area that I am considering applying my nutrition background to in the future. Other areas of interest include paediatrics, private practice, the culinary arts and food insecurity. Ultimately, with the authority and credentials of a registered dietitian, I hope to serve as a mediator, guiding others in their search for a personal dietary lifestyle that is sustainable, nutritionally balanced and environmentally considerate.
Author: Hannah Cai, hannahcai.wordpress.com
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Stay tuned for more from Hannah PLUS soon we will be getting some insight from Russell, a Harvard Alumi (Harvard University School of Public Health), who’s currently an Asst. Professor at McMaster University on Dietetics, the role of a Dietitian and Nutrition. Join FoodGrads!