This guest post was written and submitted by Whitney Hightower, MS, RDN, LD. Learn more about Whitney, below.
“Eat to live, don’t live to eat. Eat clean. Guilt-Free Eating. Earn your food at the gym. Nothing tastes better than skinny feels.” Messages of morality are woven into our conversations about food and wellness every day, and often out of the mouths of well-intentioned people. Diets are masquerading as “lifestyle changes” and when we find ourselves unable to follow the food rules outlined so clearly by those who we feel know better than us, we feel like failures. Diet culture has created an interesting and harmful paradox: Eat this way or you are bad. Eat clean or you are sinful.
I’ve made a career of teaching young professionals how to apply their knowledge of nutrition in real-life, every day scenarios. As a dietetics educator, I emphasize the need to see food as emotional and cultural, to see it’s true role in our lives and the lives of those around us. Its place extends far beyond nutritional value.
When I was a baby, my sleep-deprived mom fed me at midnight, my grandfather spent his weekends picking homegrown tomatoes and strawberries from his garden for Sunday brunch. My dad makes his famous Beef Stroganoff on my visits home, my mom bakes cookies and mails them from Washington State to New Hampshire for my husband and I to enjoy. I spend time rifling through traditional Mexican, BBQ and Southern cookbooks so I can infuse some nostalgia into our kitchen for my homesick Texan.
As health professionals, we have a great opportunity to remind students and interns of the complexity of food behaviors and we have a responsibility to take morality straight out of the classroom and off the dinner table. This is hard to do when a culture of young people are being taught what the “good” foods are and what the “bad” foods are. The world supports black and white thinking around food and food behaviors. This is problematic for students with a history of disordered eating patterns who might be drawn to a profession that encourages control around a subject that perhaps feels out of control to them. This is also troublesome for the public who will be coming to these new practitioners looking for help on how to improve their health.
As educators and preceptors, how do we fight a cultural norm, in and out of the classroom? Here are a few places we can start:
1. Examine our own relationship with food:
I believe that our cultural experience with food and our relationship with our bodies can have a significant impact on our practice. The same is true for students. As dietetic educators and preceptors, we can play an important role in ensuring that students’ world-views are both challenged and nurtured throughout their early career. It is important that we graduate systems thinkers who have the capacity to effectively care for individuals and communities with diverse nutritional needs. We will be better equipped to do so if we are caring for ourselves, exploring our own biases and compassionately examining our relationship with food and nutrition.
2. Encourage students and interns to look at food and nutrition from a place of deep empathy:
This often starts with asking thought provoking questions. For example: How do you make the science of baking and nutrient density relevant for a recently diagnosed diabetic who is afraid that making cupcakes for his granddaughter’s birthday will land him in the hospital again? How do you take the concepts you learned in a nutrition policy course and use them to advocate for your clients who want to eat more fruits and vegetables but don’t have access to them in their town? Is your patient in the hospital simply there because they didn’t know that French fries and burgers weren’t heart healthy? Perhaps they work 14-hour days and it’s the only thing their kids will eat and they just want to sit down and have a meal with their family before everyone has to go to bed?
Understanding breeds empathy. Empathy is an important characteristic for all health professionals to foster. Exploring the role of food and nutrition from a neutral, amoral perspective both in their own life and in the lives of their patients and clients can help build empathy, reject ineffective black and white thinking and positively impact the public.
BIO: Whitney Hightower, MS, RDN, LD is a Registered Dietitian and the Assistant Director/Field Supervisor of the Keene State College Dietetic Internship in Keene, NH. She manages a campus-wide, non-diet nutrition coaching program where she precepts interns as they work one-on-one with students, helping them synthesize the complexity of nutrition science without complicating the joy of eating and movement. You can connect with Whitney on LinkedIn.