Monday, November 5, 2012

Alumni Help Wellness Take Root at Microsoft

Nutrition graduates offer personal coaching on the front lines of the workplace wellness movement.

Marcy Dorsey, RD, outside a Microsoft wellness fair.
Nutrition and dietetics program graduate Marcy Dorsey provides personal wellness coaching.

Some Bastyr University graduates start their own practices or join small health care clinics. Then there's Microsoft, the Redmond, Washington, behemoth that makes some of the world's most widely used software.

More than a dozen Bastyr nutrition graduates have found consistent work at Microsoft's Know Your Numbers fair, an annual fall wellness event that lets employees learn their blood pressure, cholesterol and other health indicators and receive personal health coaching right at their workplace.

For Bastyr-trained nutritionists and dietitians, it's a chance to make a difference in a short time. It's also a chance to teach what they've learned in school about preventive health and whole-food nutrition.

"It's very high intensity," says Marcy Dorsey, who completed Bastyr's Master of Science in Nutrition and Didactic Program in Dietetics (MSN/DPD) in 2011. "This could be the only time participants ever see a dietitian or nutritionist, so we really want to make an impact. We have to adapt quickly and find out how to connect with and motivate each individual. It's a lot of fun."

In two years at the fair, Dorsey has found Microsoft workers are often highly motivated, allowing the chance to delve into advanced nutrition. "We can get into really cool 'Bastyrian' topics, talking about seaweed or quinoa or different sources of omegas-3s," she says. "At other settings, you don't always get past, 'Do you eat vegetables?'"

How it Works

Microsoft workers sign up to visit to the wellness fair, which moves from building to building around the company's sprawling, leafy campus outside Seattle. The event is free to employees and their spouses or domestic partners. It runs for eight weeks each fall and screened more than 15,000 people in 2011.

Upon arrival, participants are quickly measured for their blood pressure, cholesterol level, weight, body fat percentage, body mass index and blood-sugar level. Then they meet with a health educator such as Dorsey, who talks with them for 15 minutes about diet and wellness goals. They can also receive optional flu shots and whooping cough vaccinations.

Coaches like Dorsey formally work for Wellness Corporate Solutions, a Maryland-based company. They're part of a growing trend of preventive health that employers provide for their workers, finding that they can save on health care costs and keep their work force happier and more energetic.

At Microsoft, Dorsey finds herself returning to the fundamentals of whole-food nutrition she learned at Bastyr. She explains the concept with the questions she learned from Bastyr nutrition faculty member Cynthia Lair, CHN: Can you imagine a food growing in the earth? (A carrot, yes. A marshmallow, no.) Is it something humans have eaten for a long time? Does it have a long list of ingredients you've never heard of?

In this way Dorsey can teach the essence of whole-food nutrition in 15 minutes and still leave time for questions. When people visit by their own choice and learn their health indicators, they tend to be open to new ideas — and that's essential for nutrition changes, Dorsey says.

"Nutrition is a very personal, private belief for some people," she says. "It's like religion in some ways. Entering into that to help people change only works if they're open to it."

Path to Bastyr

Dorsey's lifelong interest in science led her to a job at a Seattle biotechnology company, where she developed drugs for obesity, diabetes and osteoporosis. But she realized drugs weren't getting to the source of the problems.

"I really wanted to get to the root of those issues, rather than just putting a Band-Aid on them," she says.

She enrolled in Bastyr's master’s in nutrition program, which she describes as almost a "dual major" because it teaches both conventional food science and whole food nutrition. Now she teaches health classes year-round at the EvergreenHealth clinic in Kirkland, Washington, and helps at the Microsoft fair each fall.

She found the wellness fair position through nutrition faculty member Doris M. Piccinin, MS, RD, CDE, CD, and a network of Bastyr alumni who have helped each other find work. Natalie Libby, RD (BSN/DPD, '11), who also works at the wellness fair, says she likes the chance to answer a range of questions during the coaching sessions.

"I really like the counseling aspect," says Libby. "We're asked about low-carb diets, gluten-free diets, egg yolks – so many different things. But you can do a lot in 15 minutes."

Dorsey says she enjoys the diversity of questions and the chance to compare notes with other dietitians.

For instance, Microsoft employees from South Asia sometimes ask her about olive oil. They have heard it is healthy and wonder if they should use it. Dorsey tells them it has smoke point too low for high-heat cooking. If they have low-fat or vegetarian diets, using traditional ghee (clarified butter) for cooking is fine.

The biggest benefits come from people who return each year and track their health over time, Dorsey says. One man made a goal last year of eating oatmeal for breakfast; he returned this year to find that his high cholesterol had dropped 20 points.

"You get satisfaction from making a difference in someone's life in a short period of time," says Dorsey. "That's the drive for many of us. We want to create change and improve people's health."

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Learn more about studying at Bastyr to become a nutritionist.

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