Nutrition Counseling Program catalyzes dietetic careers for students
Across Virginia Tech's campus, the program offers students applied experience as counselors, helping other students and faculty achieve their nutrition goals.
It’s something that everyone loves — and needs to live. There are incredible flavors out there — spicy, sweet, savory, salty, crunchy — from every corner of the Earth.
But, for a lot of us, it’s difficult to strike the appropriate balance of food.
In the Nutrition Counseling Program, students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech put their knowledge into action to help others across campus identify and implement sustainable nutrition-related lifestyle changes to meet their health goals.
“This isn’t a program where we just provide meal plans or tell people what to eat,” said Tina Yazdi, one of the graduate students in the Master of Science in nutrition and dietetics program. “This is nutrition counseling for behavior change. We focus on realistic behavioral changes that will truly help our clients reach their nutrition goals in a sustainable manner.”
To have true, lasting change, Yazdi said, goals need to be client-centered, achievable, and focused on changing habits.
“You can’t achieve a sustainable or lasting change by trying to do something quickly,” said Yazdi, who puts the knowledge from the classroom into practice. “These changes must be done incrementally. If a client has a goal to lose weight, that goal should be making healthy decisions that result in losing a small amount of weight over an extended period of time.”
For the student counselors, the goal is to provide individualized nutrition care for each client, which is no easy undertaking for both undergraduate and graduate students.
“We want to allow our students to apply the knowledge they learn in the classroom in real-life situations with something on the line,” said Carol Papillon, a senior instructor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise and the director of the Virginia Tech Internship Program in Nutrition and Dietetics who also co-founded the Nutrition Counseling Program in the 1990s. “They learn all this information, but then to translate that and find out which portions of that information is meaningful to a client is a large skillset to develop and something they will need in the future.”
That experience was the catalyst for Erin Palinski-Wade ’02 to become a registered dietitian. She is now solidified with her own practice, the author of numerous books, and a go-to-expert on all things nutrition and diabetes.
As part of the program, Palinski-Wade saw clients multiple times, which helped her blossom as a dietitian through the practice of coaching people to make these challenging lifestyle adjustments.
“You're helping them problem solve through challenges, and that was the No. 1 most valuable thing that the program offered,” Palinski-Wade said. “From a student perspective, it's helpful because it teaches you organization. It teaches you to be responsible to show up on time and confirm appointments – the little nuances that you have to do to be successful with your clients. It gives a little taste of what it might be like to run your own practice.”
This is an atypical experience for nutrition and dietetics students at a university.
“The students grow in their self-efficacy and confidence as counselors over a semester,” said Kristen Chang, the assistant director of the Master of Science in nutrition and dietetics program for the department. “The students want to do their best, but it’s a very real challenge when they are counseling someone they don’t know. We see tremendous growth during students’ time working with the service and the confidence they gain through the process is incredible.”
One of the clients that Palinski-Wade coached while in the program had an eating disorder and a challenging relationship with food as a whole.
“Seeing the growth of my client where she started to develop a better relationship with food through what she was doing on her own combined with my guidance, that was really rewarding,” Palinski-Wade said. “That improved relationship with food meant less stress in worrying about counting every calorie. That’s going to stick with someone for life and improve their entire quality of life.”