Story by Freya Cartwright
Nutrition may be a science, but healthy living is an art form. Lisa Sheehan-Smith, director of MTSU’s accredited Dietetics program, prepares her students to face every demand of the dietetics field. From managing a loved one’s disease to educating grocery store consumers, Sheehan-Smith explains how dietetics changes lives with empathy, information, and communication.
What drew you to the study of diet and nutrition?
I was an athlete growing up, a competitive gymnast and baton twirler, so I was always very interested in how food and nutrition could support my training. In my last year of high school during a career fair, I actually met a registered dietitian and had the best conversation with her. I thought, this is something I could do! Then a month or two after I met her, my dad was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Guess which dietitian was on his health care team? It was her! After my dad’s diagnosis, I learned a lot about how eating properly could make such a difference in managing a disease. It literally added years to my dad’s life. I saw what an impact his dietitian made, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
Are many dietetics students drawn to nutrition through disease management?
Yes, we get a lot of students who may have been diagnosed with a chronic disease or who might have a loved one with health issues, and they’re here to learn how nutrition can make a difference. I think that’s one of the most common reasons that students become interested in dietetics. But sometimes, our students are just very passionate about food health. Think about how popular food is in the media right now—all the food channels, food blogs, everything! Cooking is such a hot topic. Our students get to learn how to make food more healthy and how it can make a difference in someone’s well-being. They also learn how to sift through all the nutrition information—and misinformation!—that you see these days.
What are some “health fads” that dietetics students explore?
For one thing, they learn to scrutinize all the different dietary supplements that are out there. Dietary supplements are technically neither a food nor a drug, so they’re not regulated in the same way that food and drugs are. Companies that sell products like supplements, herbs, or CBD don’t have to prove that their product works—or even that it’s safe. It’s just allowed to be sold as is. We try to teach our students where to find reliable information on such products, but I think a lot of people come to rely too much on supplements.
Weight-loss diets are another “health fad.” There’s just so many out there, and where’s the science behind them? In dietetics, there’s no such thing as one diet that fits all, because it’s about looking at the individual’s health needs. Actually, I hate the word “diet”; we don’t practice diets here—we practice nutritious and enjoyable eating! But those are two categories of misinformation that our students have to wade through. I tell them that it’s going to continue throughout their career, because there’s always a new fad coming around.
What are some of the most popular careers for dieticians?
A growing area—there’s not too many dietitians doing it yet, especially in Tennessee—is working as a grocery store dietitian. One of our recent graduates is a dietitian for Kroger. She takes clients on grocery store tours and does individual counseling and cooking demonstrations. I think that field is really going to grow. Your nutrition journey starts at the grocery store, and many consumers want professional help to navigate all the different products on the market today.
In addition to the “standard” dietitian careers, like family dietitians and child nutritionists, there are always ways to integrate dietetics with other fields of study. Media students, for example, can integrate their knowledge of food and nutrition with a media career, whether that’s by food blogging, a career in food television, or working in nutrition communications, where you craft the nutrition science into a message that the consumer will understand. That’s one thing that dietitians have to be really good at: turning our science into accessible information that everybody can use.
It sounds like dietetics requires communication skills as much as scientific ones.
Yes, our students learn a lot about communication throughout their curriculum. We do nutrition education classes as well as peer and community education. In their senior year, they take a nutrition coaching and counseling class, where they learn what we call “motivational interviewing.” This teaches them how to determine what stage a client’s at in terms of being ready to make a lifestyle change. This is very important, because again, you can’t make the change for them. Then our students actually get to coach clients themselves! I always tell them that it’s not just about what you know, but rather it’s about how you can communicate that to somebody else. That’s how you get people to change their own lives. In that respect, dietetics is both a science and an art.