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Corporate Wellness Programs: A New Frontier for RDNs

Dante Preciado
By Mallory Franklin, Student Blogger

Registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) are best known for their roles in clinical nutrition, food service management, community nutrition, and public policy. However, there is increasing opportunity for RDNs to expand their job search into the private sector. Employers across the United States are implementing corporate wellness programs to increase employee health and reduce their healthcare costs. A 2010 study found that for every $1 an employer spends on corporate wellness, they save $4 on health care costs and absenteeism (1). This is an obvious incentive for any business, small or large, to implement a corporate wellness program. So much so that the 2016 Employer Health Benefits Survey showed that 46% of small businesses and 83% of large companies provide some sort of corporate wellness program to their employees (2). With growing popularity, these programs are excellent opportunities for RDNs to explore new employment options and reach new clientele.

When searching through corporate wellness providers, I quickly learned that the term “corporate wellness” could take on many different definitions. Platforms varied from one-on-one services, to software packages, to interactive phone apps. Services mostly included diet and exercise initiatives but some also provided physical therapy, massage therapy, mindfulness, and meditation. Overall, these programs are designed to prevent the development of chronic diseases by identifying risk factors and implementing lifestyle changes to reduce those risks.

In addition to lowering employer costs and improving employee health, corporate wellness may also address the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which emphasize the need to “support healthy eating patterns for all” (3). Corporations are like communities that allow individuals to interact every day, share comparable work experience, possess similar values, and likely have similar education backgrounds. As such, the corporate environment is a great opportunity to stimulate support and discussion around nutrition and health issues. By creating a culture of health at work, we are more likely to create a culture of health at home, with friends, and eventually in the community.

With the many potential benefits of corporate wellness programs, how are RDNs utilized in these programs? I had the pleasure of interviewing the founder and owner of Family Food LLC, a corporate wellness provider based out of Philadelphia. Krista Yoder Latortue is an advocate for the use of RDNs to design and implement corporate wellness initiatives.

“When people are spending the bulk of their day in a work environment, meeting them at work increases the public's accessibility to Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs). Additionally, with the increased demand for corporate wellness, it is essential that RDNs, the nutrition experts, lead corporate wellness initiatives to ensure evidence-based nutrition interventions are being used”

Unfortunately, I don't think every corporate wellness provider thinks like Latortue. After looking at websites of many corporate wellness programs, I began to question the quality of services being provided. Of the 25 companies I looked at, only 9 of them clearly stated they had RDNs on staff, on the executive team, or working as health coaches. Others provided services from nurses, personal trainers, physiologists, or even“company certified wellness coaches,” with no description of the certification process. Latortue expressed her concern about programs that don't utilize the skills of RDNs.

“If nutrition education is being provided by unqualified providers, the chances of actually reducing employee health care costs decreases. Not only do they waste money on paying for a program, they continue to lose money to poor employee health. It is important to educate companies and wellness committees about the importance of using qualified health professionals, like RDNs, to provide corporate wellness programs.”

In a study that examined 150 corporate and hospital wellness programs, registered dietitians were more likely to work for hospital-based wellness programs and not corporate wellness programs (4). RDNs have classically been employed in clinical settings, and branching into the corporate world may be challenging. I asked Latortue how RDNs interested in corporate wellness should get involved.

“Pay attention to local groups in your area that may be forming around corporate wellness and get involved to be the voice of RDNs, the nutrition experts”

As corporate wellness continues to grow, it is imperative that RDNs are on the forefront of the services being provided. Working in corporate wellness is an opportunity for RDNs that are interested in preventive care and lifestyle modification, enjoy working with individuals, and are passionate about shaping the nutrition and health beliefs of society. RDNs in corporate wellness also have a chance to increase public knowledge of what RDNs do, who we are, and why we are the trusted experts in nutrition.

1. Baicker, K., Cutler, D. & Song, Z. Workplace wellness programs can generate savings. Health Aff. Proj. Hope 29, 304-311 (2010).
2. 2016 Employer Health Benefits Survey-Summary of Findings. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (2016).
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at
4. Hickerson, M. & Gregoire, M. Characteristics of the Nutrition Provider in Corporate and Hospital Wellness Programs. J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 92, 339-341 (1992).

Nutrition and Heart Failure: what we know and don't know

Danielle Jordan
By Audrey Shively, MCHES
Official ACCN16 Blogger

Dr. Scott Hummel's presentation on heart failure (HF) and nutrition provided great insights in to what research has told us to date and what we still need to learn.

One in five people have congestive heart failure which equates to six million people and one in nine deaths in the United States. It is a large and growing problem defined as the heart not being able to meet the physiologic demands of the body. 

The presentation focused on dietary guidelines, malnutrition and frailty, micronutrient deficiencies, and energy interventions. It was full of lots of great data and I strongly encourage you to view this recorded session to see the complete picture. I am only going to be able to address the highlights here.

Nutrition intervention in heart failure encompasses a variety of issues such as diet adherence, neurohormonal affects, metabolic aspects, and the physical effects of malnutrition. We often ask why our HF patients cannot eat a more healthy diet but such things as a decreased sense of smell, early satiety, and medications all affect how patients eat.

There are several comorbidities associated with HF such as cognitive dysfunction, disability, and polypharmacy with studies showing HF patients can easily have five or more comorbidities to be addressed.

Dr. Hummel focused a great deal of his talk on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) guidelines for heart failure. I will share in overview of his remarks here.

Sodium and fluid intake: should be adapted to the patient and should allow for adequate protein in the diet.The dietary sodium debate has not been answered based on both observational and random control studies.

Malnutrition: if a patient is deemed malnourished there are more adverse outcomes; this is true of fragility as well. If one is malnourished most often they are also frail.

Micronutrients: HF patients are encouraged to take folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, thiamine, and magnesium; it is felt these prove to be more beneficial when coming from foods rather than supplements.

Energy metabolism: HF patients have impaired energy production and nutrient deficiency can affect this.

Dr. Hummel spent time addressing new mechanisms that may be promising for HF treatment. These include dietary nitrates, metabolic improvements, microbiomes, and vascular salt sensitivity.

There are also many studies still underway that will have an impact on HF treatments including those looking at the effect of calorie restrictions, sodium intake and quality of life, and the correlation between sodium intake and energy.

His overall takeaway messages were:
Heart failure is a large and growing problem
Nutrition is important but is incompletely understood
Sodium intake must be adapted to each patient
New mechanisms may improve our knowledge base

His final message gives us all sound advice about our nutrition and health and that is we should adopt a whole food dietary approach to eating healthy.

Simply Living Healthy Reduces Cancer Risk

Danielle Jordan
By Audrey Shively, MCHES
Official ACCN16 Blogger

Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, from the American Cancer Society shared both the myths and realities relating to cancer risk. Her overall message? Live healthier lives!

We know there are 160 million people overweight in the United States, we also know 120 million don't meet the physical activities guidelines and 95 million don't eat enough fruits and vegetables. How this relates to cancer risk lies in the data that tells us obesity, poor nutrition, inactivity, and smoking are the leading causes of cancer and that eating well, maintain a healthy weight, and exercise is the best way to avoid it.

The 2012 American Cancer Society guidelines recommend:

Maintain a  healthy weight: up to 20% of all deaths in the United States are related to obesity

Adapt a physically active lifestyle: Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week and adolescents should have one hour per day. People are encouraged to limit sedentary behavior such as sitting and watching television.

Consume a healthy diet with focus on plant sources: We should eat two and a half cups of fruits and vegetables a day as well as limit processed and red meat while choosing whole grains over refined produce. The only known cancer risk is associated with eating processed meats and colon cancer. 

Drink alcohol in moderation: Limit consumption to one or two glasses per day.

As nutrition professionals, how do we support cancer survivors? Studies have shown that patients who adhere to the ACS guidelines do have lower rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, too many people are not aware of these guidelines.

The presentation also addressed several myths surrounding the risk of cancer, including sugar feeds cancer, soy is dangerous, superfoods have special health powers, alkaline diets are best,  organic foods add protective value, and GMOs, artificial sweeteners, or supplements reduce cancer risk. There is no research that shows any of these myths to be true.

Ms. Doyle concluded her presentation with an insightful look at how environmental factors conspire against us and affect our ability to make healthy food choices.

She emphasized we all have a role to play in reducing the barriers to a healthy diet and exercise. We can influence changes in policies and systems to make healthier communities.

The bottom line is that we all need to look at the big picture in creating healthy communities, living healthier lives,  and improving our quality of life.

Eat More Berries!

Danielle Jordan
By Audrey Shively, MCHES
Official ACCN16 Blogger

The session held Thursday afternoon on Aging and Cognition presented by Barbara Shukitt-Hale, PhD focused on the increase in inflammation and oxidative stress in brain aging.

Thirty percent of the United States population is over the age of 65. If these individuals suffer from decreased motor and cognitive function there could be a healthcare crisis in this country.

Dr. Shukitt-Hale and her staff have conducted several research studies looking at impaired motor performance and cognitive function in aging rats. Their results showed a  decrease in motor behavior, learning,  and spatial memory.

Their research question was whether this impaired function could be stopped or improved by altering the diet of the rats.  They specifically looked at polyphenols found in dark fruit and vegetables, wine, chocolate, and walnuts.

Polyphenols show many neuroprotective features such as anti-inflammation, antioxidants, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer as well as improved vision.

The overall findings of their research show that nutrition intervention can forestall age related deficits in learning and memory and reverses deficits in learning and memory and declines in motor behavior performance.

But, can this translate to humans now becomes the question. The research group expanded their studies to assess exactly that.

Initial studies looked at the effects of aging on balance, gait, and cognition. Both cognition and mobility decrease with age and these declines are measurable at younger ages than expected.

The introduction of blueberries and strawberries into the diet of their human subjects improved both the measures of executive function and spatial recognition.

Their results showed:
Berries can reduce proinflammatory signals in cells
Functional declines in mobility and cognition are key features of aging
Berry fruit can improve cognition
Different berry fruits affect different aspects of cognition

In summary, polyphenols have direct effects on the brain and they can reverse age related declines. 

And most importantly, eat more berries!

Culinary Medicine Workshops at Advances and Controversies in Clinical Nutrition 2016

Danielle Jordan

Culinary medicine workshops at #ACCN16 show clinicians how to move patients as far as they can towards making healthier food choices. 

By Audrey Shively, MCHES
Official ACCN16 Blogger

Culinary medicine combines two of my favorite and health. The first in a series of Culinary Medicine Workshops being offered to ACCN attendees focused on disease implications of diet. The faculty from the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, a physician, dietitian, and chef, spent three hours discussing the benefits of both the Mediterranean and DASH diets. The workshop participants included physicians, dietitians, food scientists, and a nurse practitioner. This diversity provided a lively discussion with all sharing their different perspectives. Using a flipped classroom approach, the participants were asked to view an online webinar, read reference material, and pass a post test. This was a helpful way to introduce the concepts of both these diet interventions. In a very interactive format, the participants were given a patient case study and asked to reflect on the weight loss, nutrition, and exercise treatment options for the patient. The most fun was a cooking session where six different recipes for spaghetti and meat sauce were prepared. With each successive recipe healthy alternatives were introduced to increase the health benefits of this traditional dish. These alternatives included whole wheat pasta, lentils, and plenty of fresh vegetables. These modifications lowered the calorie and fat content as well as raised fiber and protein intake. The food tasting that followed made for a very healthy lunch. The key takeaway message was to move people as far as they can toward making healthier food choices. Tim Harlan, MD, Executive Director of the Goldring Center, gave great advice on how to discuss nutrition and diet with patients. He emphasized "It is important to meet the patients where they live", suggesting healthy food alternatives that are both affordable and accessible in their daily lives. As Dr. Harlan reminded us, our focus should be less on weight loss and more on healthy food choices to improve our overall health and well being. Sound advice for us all to follow.

Dr. Patrick Stover Reflects on Career Successes and Challenges

Danielle Jordan

Student Blogger

By Allison Dostal, PhD, RD

Dept. of Medicine, University of Minnesota Medical Center, Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition

ASN's immediate Past President Patrick J. Stover, PhD, has been elected as a new member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in recognition of his achievements for original science and research in nutrition. In addition to his important work with ASN and the NAS, he directs Cornell University's Division of Nutritional Sciences and maintains an active research program. Through all of these accomplishments, Dr. Stover hasn't lost sight of the many pitfalls, challenges, and chance happenings that have led him to the successful career he has today. In this interview, Dr. Stover discusses his trajectory from graduate student to ASN's 2015-2016 president and NAS member and offers valuable insights that both young and established scientists can take to heart.

“Relationships are so important in science. They're absolutely critical.”

Planning a career after completion of a PhD takes considerable, thought, effort, and not a small amount of stress. And yet, there's no denying the power of chance and serendipity. For Dr. Stover, attendance of a summer conference in Vermont just one week before defending his dissertation forever changed his career focus. “They had messed up room assignments – I was supposed to room with my PhD advisor, and instead I ended up rooming with chair of nutrition at Berkeley, Barry Shane. My intention was to do a postdoc in crystallography and catalytic antibodies, because my PhD is in biochemistry. But I got that room assignment, and Barry and I just got along so well that week. I kept trying to find my thesis to do my thesis corrections, but he kept taking it with him because he wanted to read it. I changed my postdoc plans and went to Berkeley in nutrition. That's really how I got introduced to nutrition - through that gratuitous error in roommate assignments.”

When asked what he believed his greatest career accomplishment to be, Dr. Stover immediately responded, “Oh, that's easy. The greatest accomplishment is finding and working with some absolutely wonderful collaborators and mentors. This also includes students. The successes have always been finding the right people to work with that enable you to address the important questions, of both scientific importance but also public health importance.”

Stover was trained as a metabolic biochemist when he first started his faculty position, with an interest in folate metabolism. He soon realized that the most important questions that matched his interests were related to fundamental mechanisms of the role of folate in birth defect prevention. “We knew it worked; we didn't know why it worked. And going out and finding people who were experts in embryonic development or an expert in cancer, and being able to work with…people who were experts in these other areas who didn't know about or weren't familiar with the science that I knew, [we were able to] put those two together and solve interesting problems and learn new techniques.”

“All good research starts with an interesting, important question.”

This concept is “absolutely paramount” for young scientists to understand as they enter a research career, Stover says. Along with this, “You really have to love what you do. You have to love asking these questions and love doing research.” After having this foundation and investment in the work of discovery, the next step is ensuring that one has the proper training, tools, and collaborators to be able to address the important question at hand.

“You have to collaborate. You don't have to know everything, but you have to know what you don't know and who you need to work with to be successful.”

Dr. Stover acknowledged that today, a lot of the important questions that many of us are interested in require multidisciplinary approaches and collaborative work, because these problems require different perspectives, tools, and techniques.

He also mentioned that throughout the years, ASN's Graduate Nutrition Education Committee had written pieces about the importance of being an expert in something, but also having a broad knowledge base. “You have to be deep in what your expertise is - your disciplinary expertise and your technical expertise. But that's not enough to address many of the important public health problems and the important scientific questions we have.”

Dr. Stover also recognized the increasing importance of communicating our science to other researchers and the general public. “A lot of us increasingly have to be well aware that what we're interested in, and what excites us, has to be effectively communicated to external audiences so that they're excited to support our work, [and to] the federal government so they're excited to fund our work”.

Many of the issues Stover has had to navigate as a scientist are not unlike those that concern young investigators today. When discussing the biggest challenge that he's had to face in his career, he emphasized the difficult transition from focused researcher to faculty member. “As academic faculty…we get our positions because we've been good at research. And then we get these faculty positions and we get put in offices, and we get asked to teach, and we get asked to manage personnel, and get asked to manage budgets and do some administration, for which we are utterly unqualified and untrained for, for the most part. I think being an assistant professor is really, really tough.” He noted vast improvements in career training tools since he first became an assistant professor in 1994, highlighting ASN's workshops on effective teaching, mentoring, and skill sets needed for professional development.

As he continues to amass accolades and respect for his scientific career, Dr. Stover shows no sign of slowing down. When asked about the nutrition science-related goals he would like to achieve, he offered insight for both his own research program and for ASN. “In my own work, we continue to be really interested in the molecular basis of pathology related to folate metabolism, because we're very interested in how folate requirements differ among individuals and how those affect important endpoints like genome stability and gene expression.” He also spoke about improving nutritional approaches to address diseases such as neuropathy, cancers, and neural tube defects, all of which are tied into folate's role in human health. “We want to provide an engineering approach to understand how these things work and how nutrition throughout the life cycle can be used to improve the quality of life and wellness of life.”

He also intends on having a broader impact. Stover acknowledged that the number of ASN members elected into the National Academy of Sciences is very small, despite the excellent work produced by nutrition researchers that belong to ASN. “We need to get more outstanding nutrition scientists into greater visibility. I want to really work for that as well.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Meat Preparation and Carcinogens– Practical Recommendations

Student Blogger

By Chris Radlicz

This past October, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), made headlines when they classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen. This classification was based on “sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meats causes colorectal cancer”. Additionally, red meat has been classified as a Group 2A carcinogen due to “limited evidence that consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect” [1]. These IARC statements advocating a limited intake of processed and red meats tend to be misconstrued by the public and many may take it to mean that all meat should be avoided. Besides the inherent benefits of protein and various micronutrients in meat, red meat is primarily trumpeted as the best source of heme-iron in the diet. With iron deficiency as the most common nutritional disorder in the world [2], limiting red meat may not be prudent advice. What, therefore, is unique to red meat and processed meats which explains their carcinogenic potential?

What gives meat a bad rap is not inherent in the animal muscle itself, but rather the preservatives added to meats and the cooking processes which meats undergo. So what can be done to mitigate and avoid the proposed cancerous effects of some meats? Below are some practical tips to be conscious of and implement when meat shopping and preparing meats so that consumers can take full advantage of the nourishment from meats while limiting any risk

  • 1. Cook with Moist Heat: The Journal of the American Dietetic Association in a 2010 article, showed that cooking with dry heat promoted a 10 to 100-fold increase in advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs increase oxidative stress and inflammation, and have shown to be a player in the pathogenesis of many chronic diseases. Cooking with moist heat, at low temperatures, and shorter cooking times have all been shown to reduce AGE formation [3]. Cooking meat in stews and sauces at low temperatures for longer periods of time, typical of crock-pot style cooking, is an effective way to reduce formation of these questionable AGEs.
  • 2. Avoid Charring Meats: Cooking meat at high temperatures, typically on a grill or skillet, can lead to browning or charring. This browning is known to occur as a result of the Maillard reaction which has been shown to produce heterocyclic amines (HCAs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs form when fat from grilled meat is ignited, causing flames containing these PAHs, which can then adhere to the meat's surface. HCAs are formed from amino acids, sugars, and creatine reacting at high temperatures. These chemicals have been shown to be mutagenic to DNA after consumption and digestion, leading to genetic instability and increased risk of cancer [4]. Cooking meats at higher temperatures and for long periods of time will lead to increased HCAs, while smoking and charring will result in more PAH formation. No Federal guidelines exist addressing PAH and HCA consumption, but these chemicals provide a mechanism as to meats carcinogenic capacity. With this in mind, the National Cancer Institute suggests that concerned individuals should turn meat over frequently when cooking, use a microwave first to shorten high temperature cooking time, remove charred portions of meat, and refrain from using gravy made from meat drippings as ways to reduce PAH and HCA exposure [5].
  • 3. Purchase Nitrate-Free and Uncured Meats: Nitrates and nitrites added as preservatives to meat have been shown to convert to activated N-nitroso compounds (nitrosamines and nitrosamides) in the gut, and are proposed to be carcinogenic due to their ability to cause DNA damage [6]. N-nitroso compound formation can also be increased with the intake of red meat, principally due to interactions with the heme-iron [7].
  • 4. Purchase Meat that isn't Smoked: Smoked meats fall under the category of processed meats. Epidemiological studies, have shown a correlation between cancer of the intestinal tract and the frequency of dietary intake of smoked foods [8]. More convincingly, the smoking process forms N-nitroso compounds and inevitably contain high levels of PHAs.
  • 5. Purchase Antibiotic-Free Meat- Some antibiotics and pesticides in meats can react with nitrite to form nitrosamines in high quantities [9]. Additionally, there is much worry that the antibiotic use in agriculture is contributing to the growing prevalence of antibiotic resistance, and in a more minor capacity, to the obesity epidemic [10,11]


[1]       WHO | Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat

[2]       Liu K, Kaffes AJ. Iron deficiency anaemia: a review of diagnosis, investigation and management. Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol 2012;24:109–16. doi:10.1097/MEG.0b013e32834f3140.

[3]       Uribarri J, Woodruff S, Goodman S, Cai W, Chen X, Pyzik R, et al. Advanced glycation end products in foods and a practical guide to their reduction in the diet. J Am Diet Assoc 2010;110:911–6.e12. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2010.03.018.

[4]       Cross AJ, Sinha R. Meat-related mutagens/carcinogens in the etiology of colorectal cancer. Environ Mol Mutagen 2004;44:44–55. doi:10.1002/em.20030.

[5]       Knize MG, Felton JS. Formation and human risk of carcinogenic heterocyclic amines formed from natural precursors in meat. Nutr Rev 2005;63:158–65.

[6]       You C, Wang J, Dai X, Wang Y. Transcriptional inhibition and mutagenesis induced by N-nitroso compound-derived carboxymethylated thymidine adducts in DNA. Nucleic Acids Res 2015;43:1012–8. doi:10.1093/nar/gku1391.

[7]       Rohrmann S, Linseisen J. Processed meat: the real villain? Proc Nutr Soc 2015:1–9. doi:10.1017/S0029665115004255.

[8]       Fritz W, Soós K. Smoked food and cancer. Bibl Nutr Dieta 1980:57–64.

[9]       Elespuru RK, Lijinsky W. The formation of carcinogenic nitroso compounds from nitrite and some types of agricultural chemicals. Food Cosmet Toxicol 1973;11:807–17.

[10]     Cox LM, Blaser MJ. Antibiotics in early life and obesity. Nat Rev Endocrinol 2015;11:182–90. doi:10.1038/nrendo.2014.210.

[11]     Chang Q, Wang W, Regev-Yochay G, Lipsitch M, Hanage WP. Antibiotics in agriculture and the risk to human health: how worried should we be? Evol Appl 2015;8:240–7. doi:10.1111/eva.12185.

Advocacy for Health Research

Student Blogger
By: R. Alex Coots

For scientists, the benefits of nutrition and health research are immediately apparent. It's easy for us to see how the general public and policymakers alike can benefit from a better understanding of health and nutrition. Few of us would argue that we need less health research or fewer grants, but this is exactly what's been happening since the NIH budget doubling ended over a decade ago. Decreasing budgets means fewer studies, and fewer studies means less progress on today's pressing health problems. To help address this problem, I spent a day on Capitol Hill with professors, patients, and other stakeholders to advocate for a more sustainable and predictable funding schedule for health research.

Given the abundance of high quality research institutions in New York, I thought it would be easy to get legislators to support science. How wrong I would be. At best, congressional staff received us with apathy and at worst, hostility. During one particular meeting, an elected representative went so far as to say "All you people want is more and more and more rather than try to make what you have go farther." And this was said by someone who co-sponsored the 21st Century Cures Act!

What became clear to me during the meetings was that the science profession was not viewed as one that provides answers to today's most pressing questions; rather, it was viewed as just another (expensive) special interest group. While many scientists do advocate for use of scientific information in the formation of policy, not many of us advocate for the resources we need to carry out our work. Professor Lawrence Goldstein at UCSD has previously advocated for a phone call with each grant written and each grant reviewed. I'd extend this model to include a call with each paper published so that policymakers can hear the scientific progress being made in their district or state. Ensuring that scientific information is used in policy formation is only part of the advocacy battle. We scientists must ensure that our discoveries are limited by our imaginations, not by a lack of grants.

Pursuing a RD/RDN after a PhD: Motives, Experiences and Challenges from Nutrition Experts

Student Blogger
By Hassan S. Dashti, PhD

I spent a lot of time contemplating whether I should pursue an RD after completing my PhD. I was told by one of my professors that back in his days, he had to choose between dietetics and research. He told me that it was assumed that students with ‘social' and ‘people' skills went into dietetics, whereas the rest went into research. The mutual exclusivity of nutrition clinical practice (dietitian nutritionists, RDNs; but more commonly referred to as RDs) and research is no longer the case. A recent 2016 survey from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (The Academy) revealed that 4% of RDs hold a doctoral degree (PhD, RD) in the US. For the vast majority of those 4%, their curriculum vitae(CVs) will likely indicate that they have completed a dietetic training program (RD) followed by a doctoral degree in nutrition (PhD), and rarely a PhD first then RD. So having completed vigorous doctoral programs, what makes some researchers go back to school to get their RDs?

Perhaps the most common reason is to obtain training for effective translation of nutrition research. Being able to communicate nutrition knowledge to patients and other people was also particularly the reason why Stephanie Harshman, a doctoral student at Tufts University studying vitamin K, applied to RD programs while in her last year of her graduate training. She shared, “The RD training provides a different perspective when examining clinical research, community based interventions, and allows someone to better translate basic science research into terms and ideas that will positively impact human health.” Similarly, the PhD, RD combined training program at Cornell University's Division of Nutritional Science recognizes the growing need for translational research expertise in order to enhance the “effectiveness and impact of clinical and public health nutrition,” which is made possible through this combined training. 

As nutrition is a young and evolving science, a PhD, RD is particularly crucial when leading the translation of novel and cutting-edge science, like nutrigenomics or nutritional chronotherapy, where the translation is not as simple as a dietary prescription like a low-fat diet. Previous president of the American Society for Nutrition (2014-2015) and current director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, Simin Nikbin Meydani, DVM, PhD, shared with me the story of one of her former doctoral students who wanted to bridge the gap between what is studied and what makes the news headlines and thus went on to getting her RD. Dr. Meydani said, “[The PhD and RD training together] could be applied to meaningful approaches that promote the health of an individual through proper nutrition.” 

But it's not only about how to apply and translate the science, a combined PhD, RD training may facilitate generating pertinent research questions with important implications. Having that human and patient interaction experience, which is often very limited in doctoral training, may help in study design development, particularly in human intervention studies. President-elect of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN) and Professor of Nutrition Science at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Charlene W Compher, PhD, RD, CNSC, LDN, FADA, said, “The best translational research comes from clinicians who understand what a nutritional problem really means for patients.”

While more than half of RDs (~58%) do work in clinical nutrition (acute care, ambulatory care, or long-term care), contrary to common belief —particularly among non-RDs— not all RDs end up working as full-time clinical dietitians. Practice areas for RDs keep expanding and now include community, food management, communications, consultation and business, and as indicated earlier in this article, in education and research. Thus it's not uncommon that the realization of the need of a dietetics training may occur later in a PhD's career. 

Stella Uzogara, PhD, MS, RDN, LDN CFS works in public health and decided to pursue an RD in order to get both clinical and non-clinical training to effectively discuss the challenges in public health nutrition and to positively impact health of consumers and patients. Dr. Uzogara who got her PhD in food science is also a certified food scientist (CFS). She now works as a nutritional epidemiologist in the Bureau of Family Health and Nutrition at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and a state liaison for pediatric nutrition and pregnancy nutrition surveillance systems between Massachusetts and the CDC. She also works in several community health programs. Dr Uzogara said: “Personally, nutrition has served me well in my job and it gives me more flexibility, enabling me to practice both food science and health science, two disciplines which interest me a lot.” On the other hand, incoming Brigham and Women's Hospital dietetic intern and current doctoral student at the University of Connecticut in biomedical engineering, Anna Roto, MS, MPH, is learning about clinical instruments, mobile health devices, as well as how to design new equipment for medical use in her doctorate program. When asked about her intentions for pursuing an RD, she said, “I am not getting the clinical experience that I believe is necessary for a career in the rehabilitation science field, as I plan to work with individuals experiencing trauma or debilitating illnesses to improve their physical abilities and overall quality of life.” 

An RD may also be used as an opportunity to steer towards a new career. Dominica Nichols, PhD, RD, LDN, competed her doctoral training at Northeastern University in microbiology where her work in microbial ecology informed the technology used by several biotech startups. However, after years of culturing microorganisms, Dr. Nichols was looking for other opportunities that would enable her to mentor students and have more interactions with people. Having completed her dietetic internship at Simmons College, she now serves as a pediatric outpatient dietitian at a community center affiliated with Boston Children Hospital. Her research training allows her to work closely with other physicians on various research projects. She said, “Dietetics is an interdisciplinary field. Having training in another field, microbiology in my case, benefits my dietetics practice.”

While less demanding than a doctoral program, completing an RD does come with its own challenges. Interns should be ready to work very closely with a preceptor and shadow current practicing dietitians for an extended period of the internship. As most dietetic internships are fulltime programs, it is often challenging to work on other ongoing projects and jobs, but possible. When asked about the difficulties she experienced as a doctoral student who decided to pursue an RD, Stephanie Harshman shared, “I think the most challenging part of this experience has been trying to find support and guidance from faculty as I pursue the credential.” Dr. Dominica also claimed, “I constantly had to explain to other people why I was doing what I was doing.” 

Despite these challenges, most of which are only temporary, whether your interests lie in public health policy, community, or teaching (yes, numerous teaching opportunities are now seeking PhD, RDs), an RD is nonetheless an opportunity for growth and expansion. Dr. Compher said, “I continue to treasure my clinical practice because it keeps me in touch with issues of importance to patients.”

Moving Beyond BMI - An Evaluation of an Alternative Adiposity Index and Mortality Risk

Student Blogger
By Caitlin Dow

Body Mass Index. BMI, for short. Those three words tend to conjure up some intense feelings in scientists and the general public, alike. In 1832, a Belgian statistician named Adolphe Quetelet created his namesake index, the Quetelet Index, to describe the normal variation seen in weight relative to height across populations. That index got its new name “Body Mass Index” in 1972 from Ancel Keys (1) and was  by the World Health Organization as a clinical tool to be used easily and effectively to determine levels of obesity. 

As Cyndi Thomson, PhD, RD, a professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona points out, “BMI was meant for population evaluation and we keep applying it to individuals.” BMI is useful when we study populations. It predicts risk for development of a number of chronic diseases (2). However, applying BMI to individuals, which is likely not what Quetelet had in mind when he created it, creates a number of issues. While BMI correlates well with fat mass on a population (but not necessarily on an individual level), it certainly does not consider distribution of fat. This is important because plenty of data indicate that abdominal fat predisposes people to a number of health risks more so than fat distributed evenly throughout the body (2). Furthermore, associations between BMI and various outcomes like risk for disease or mortality are assumed to be linear. That is, as BMI increases, risk for disease also increases. However, some cross-sectional, epidemiological studies have shown a “U-shaped” relation between BMI and mortality (3,4), meaning that people with very low or very high BMIs are at elevated risk of dying within a given period of time than those in the middle (generally overweight) range. The increased mortality risk with normal BMIs later in life is actually probably due to smoking or weight loss due to disease (like cancer), but this hasn't stopped the media from concluding that “being overweight is good for you!” Due to these shortcomings of BMI, it is high time to consider/develop some type of index that (a) has a linear relation with mortality for ease of interpretation; (b) considers fat mass and/or distribution; and (c) can be used easily in both research and clinical settings.

To address this need, new adiposity indices are being studied that may provide more clinical and scientific utility than BMI. A body shape index (ABSI) considers waist circumference (a surrogate measure of abdominal adiposity), adjusted for height and weight and was first developed by Krakauer, et al (5). Cyndi Thomson and colleagues recently published a paper in Obesity evaluating the relation between ABSI and mortality risk in a very large cohort study (6). The analysis included over 77,500 postmenopausal women enrolled in the Women's Health Initiative Observational Study. Anthropometrics were measured at baseline and the women were followed for an average of 13.5 years. Similar to previous findings, a U-shaped association between BMI and mortality was demonstrated. However, ABSI was strongly and positively associated with mortality, such that those in the highest quintile of ABSI had a 37% increased risk of death compared with those in the lowest quintile.

I discussed the implications of these findings with Dr. Thomson over the phone. The results from this study that indicate that ABSI is associated with mortality in postmenopausal women support similar findings from a smaller cohort from the British Health and Lifestyle Survey (7). However, while ABSI may be a more robust index describing the effect of adiposity on mortality risk, it's not ready for clinical implementation. First, because it is so new, there are no standard reference values or categorical values that correspond with normal or excessive adiposity. As Dr. Thomson says, “ABSI may provide some additional information that informs on risk, but I think we still have the issue of people not measuring waist circumference [clinically].” Because waist circumference requires more than standing on a scale, it has been difficult to implement. Clinicians have to be trained on how to properly measure waist circumference, and while it is inexpensive and not overly complicated to learn, accuracy and inter-individual measurement techniques are an issue. Despite these current setbacks, she remains optimistic: “The measurements haven't gotten there, but they will.”

Another important aspect of using ABSI (or any index of body composition) will be validating it across a range of races and ethnicities. Thomson notes that in a preliminary analysis that has yet to be published, the ABSI and mortality risk does indeed differ between races and ethnicities. Because of that, “one clinician may use one [adiposity index] while another may use something else, depending on their patient population.” 

Although still in the preliminary stages of research, ABSI may pan out as a useful measure of adiposity that could replace or complement BMI. It will need to be rigorously tested across age groups, race/ethnicities, genders and in its associations with a variety of chronic diseases. Stay tuned as this very young area of research unfolds!

1. Keys A,  Fidanza F, Karvonen M, Kimura N, Taylor H. Indices of relative weight and obesity. Journal of Chronic Diseases 1972; 25 (6–7): 329–43. 
2.Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health. Why Use BMI?
3.Flegal KM, Kit BK, Orpana H, Graubard BI. Association of all-cause mortality with overweight and obesity using standard body mass index categories: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA 2013; 309:71-82.
4.Winter JE, Macinnis RJ, Wattanapenpaiboon N, Nowson CA. BMI and all-cause mortality in older adults: a meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr 2014;99:875-890.
5.Krakauer NY, Krakauer JC. A new body shape index predicts mortality hazard independently of body mass index. PloS One 2012;7:e39504
6.Thomson CA, Garcia DO, Wertheim BC, Hingle MD, Bea JW, Zaslavsky O, Caire-Juvera G, Rohan T, Vitolins MZ, Thompson PA, Lewis CE. Body shape, adiposity index, and mortality in postmenopausal women: Findings from the Women's Health Initiative. Obesity; 2016; 1061-9.
7.Krakauer NY, Krakauer JC. Dynamic association of mortality hazard with body shape. PloS One 2014;9:e8879.