How's this for commitment? Rebecca Oshiro read about Bastyr University's nutrition program as a high school student and knew the whole-food focus was right for her. She needed tuition money, weighed her options, then joined the Navy, which trained her in Arabic and sent her to Kuwait and Germany.
Ten years later Oshiro moved to Seattle to begin Bastyr's Bachelor of Science with a Major in Nutrition program, just as planned.
Not every student takes such a roundabout path to Bastyr, but plenty are finding themselves drawn to the University’s nutrition programs, which saw record enrollment for both graduate and undergraduate students in fall 2011.
The growth comes as Americans have become increasingly skeptical of the fast-fried-high-fructose food landscape and more interested in reconnecting with traditional sources of nourishment. That cultural shift may be the biggest reason interest in whole-food nutrition is surging.
"It's a hot topic," says Debra Boutin, MS, RD, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science. "It's our time, in a way. Being interested in whole foods is becoming the norm, and people don't have many routes where they can go to an accredited school and get this education."
She describes the whole-food philosophy that guides the department in simple terms: Eat food in the least-processed form possible. An apple is preferable to applesauce, which is better than apple juice, which beats a Fruit Roll-Up.
The program shares Bastyr's focus on the interconnected nature of physical, mental and spiritual health, a major appeal for many students.
"I'm really passionate about whole foods and approaching nutrition from more than one angle," says Sherman Sherman, a nutrition and dietetics master's student who plans to work in community education. "I grew up eating pretty unhealthily, I would say. So learning how to educate others is a response to that."
The holistic approach has also led to some interesting pairings in the department, both new and old:
Counseling for Weight Management
Each spring, second year Master of Science in Nutrition and Clinical Health Psychology students offer a program at the University's teaching clinic, Bastyr Center for Natural Health, that combines nutrition education, exercise plans, group discussion and one-on-one counseling.
The nine-week program, Weigh to Go, recognizes that psychology plays a major role in eating behavior and gives participants tools for setting and keeping goals, practicing mindfulness and dealing with emotional eating. They also receive instruction in cooking with whole grains and fresh vegetables.
"People walk away with an awareness of how mindfulness can slow down their eating patterns or simply make them more aware of their eating patterns," says faculty supervisor Christy Hofsess, PhD.
"I've never had counseling associated with weight loss," past participant Julie Zander says. "But eating connects to the rest of our lives, so it makes sense."
Culinary Training: "It's Got to Taste Good Too."
Students in all nutrition programs get training in Bastyr's whole-food teaching kitchen, but undergraduates can also earn a degree in nutrition and culinary arts. That option appealed to Siona Sammartino, who switched to the new program as soon as it became available two years ago. "Food is medicine, but it's got to taste good too," she says. "That's why the culinary training is such a good match for nutrition students."
When she graduated, she enrolled in the popular Didactic Program in Dietetics and continued a working partnership with faculty member Jennifer Adler, MS, CN. Through Adler's private practice, Passionate Nutrition, Sammartino leads private cooking classes and retreats, pantry "makeovers," grocery shopping tours, and cooking demonstrations at area PCC Natural Markets — all while in school.
"It's challenging, but I feel like my passion is carrying me through," she says.
Sammartino also runs a food blog and leads seaweed-gathering expeditions with Adler to the nearby San Juan Islands, showing participants how to harvest the surprisingly nutritious green stuff and work it into everyday cooking.
Getting Kids Serious about Play
APPLE Core, a new children's obesity prevention program run in partnership with health care coverage provider Premera Blue Cross, focuses on the role that families play in child health. Bastyr exercise science faculty and students designed the program for children at risk of obesity and their parents as a weekend workshop this fall, with plans to turn it into a day camp next summer.
Parents and children attended cooking demonstrations together, then the parents headed out on a whole-food shopping trip while the children learned playful physical activities. The focus was on games that don't require equipment, like freeze tag, red light-green light, “human knot," “human jumping beans" and beach-ball games.
“These are common games that we play as children," says Tiffany Reiss, APPLE Core's lead organizer and director of the department's exercise science and wellness program. “When we become adults we think we look silly, so we don’t do them, which is a shame because we all need to be in touch with our inner child."
Connecting the Kitchen and the Lab
The department also contributes to the University's work to bring scientific rigor to natural medicine. As a student, the Navy veteran Oshiro is working with exercise science faculty June Kloubec, PhD, on a study into vitamin D and athletic performance.
"I can't believe that a doctor is helping me do a research project as an undergrad," Oshiro says. "That would never happen at other schools. She's going out of her way to help me get funding, supervising it and helping me get published and present at a conference."
Oshiro was concerned about how her military experience would be received at a natural health school — but she's found that people at Bastyr welcome students with diverse experiences. She hopes to continue on in a public health graduate program. Six years in the military made her plenty aware of the problems with institutional food providers.
"This is a unique program," she says.
Given the evidence in favor of unprocessed "real" food over what author Michael Pollan calls "edible foodlike substance," it's surprising that whole-food focus isn't the norm in nutrition education.
"Not everybody thinks that processed foods are a problem, quite frankly," says Boutin, the department chair. "People are so used to things being one way that they don't see a need for change. There is so much work that needs to be done—and so many places our students can make a difference."
She points to student partnerships with local schools and hospitals as examples. "Real" food is making a comeback, dish by dish, she says. In the hallways near the teaching kitchen, you can smell it in the air.