A ‘Spark’ for Nutrition Science

Natalie Cooke headshot

The foods we put into our bodies can impact everything from our physical abilities to our moods. And understanding the connection between nutrition and health is fundamental to the study of many life sciences.

That’s one of the reasons why Introduction to Human Nutrition — an undergraduate general education course at NC State — is so popular.

But it doesn’t just draw students pursuing careers in health professions. The course also appeals to those who have a personal interest in better understanding nutrition science and its impact on human health and wellbeing.

So it’s no surprise to Natalie Cooke — who has been teaching the course for five years — that students from a wide variety of disciplines enroll in her class.

“Some of these students even change their majors,” says Cooke, an assistant professor and director of undergraduate programs for nutrition science and a registered dietitian. “This course was developed by Dr. Sarah Ash more than 30 years ago, so it has a rich legacy and history. And so many NC State students and graduates have taken it.”

One of those students is Sydney Kanters, a junior nutrition major who plans to go to physician assistant school after graduating. She says it’s important for everyone to have a fundamental understanding of nutrition science, especially those entering health professions.

“In Dr. Cooke’s class, we learned about the plethora of chronic diseases and medical conditions that can be prevented or improved by a well-rounded diet,” Kanters says. “I think there is definitely a lack of nutrition education in our society, and this class is a great way for students of all majors to learn how nutrition can be incorporated into their future careers.”

The class is offered year round, even in the summer, by Cooke and her colleague April Fogleman, an associate professor and Extension specialist in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences. Cooke also teaches other courses that build on Introduction to Human Nutrition, including classes on research methods, service-learning and professional development.

Cooke, who earned bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from NC State, “has always gone above and beyond to make sure her students succeed and has been extremely helpful, even beyond this course,” Kanters says.

Read on as Cooke describes more about the course, her passion for nutrition science and why she believes it’s important for NC State to have wellness courses in the curriculum.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).

How would you describe the range of students who take this course?

Most of our students are interested in careers in health professions. They want to use this class as a foundational knowledge course to understand the complexity of science. They pursue careers as doctors, pharmacists, PAs, nurses, registered dietitians and physical and occupational therapists. This course serves them well for the future because they are better equipped to understand the link between their patients’ nutrition and their health. We also have students from non-life sciences majors like business administration, social work or engineering who take the course because they have a personal interest in nutrition.

One of the reasons I love teaching this course is because for many students it’s their first exposure to the discipline. They get that “spark” and become interested in nutrition science. Many of them take it as an elective, then learn that nutrition is a science discipline, and adapt their studies to pursue it as a career path.

So you’ve had students actually change their majors?

I’ve taught students who started the course very intent on pursuing a different life sciences major. And then in the process of taking this course, they realize that what they really like about life sciences is the applied aspect — how biology, chemistry, physiology and psychology come together in the study of nutrition science. It’s much more complex than they might have initially thought. This course can change their career trajectory.

What does the course cover?

It gives students an overview of nutrition as a discipline. We talk about how to understand evidence-based nutrition research through exploring different types of scientific studies. We discuss the history of dietary guidance, looking at how public health recommendations have changed over the years, what the current nutrition guidelines are, how to read food labels and how to recognize false claims related to nutrition.

We also dive into what happens in our bodies when we eat, examining the process of digestion and absorption. We learn about each of the macronutrients and micronutrients while exploring chronic diseases, their development and the relationship between diet and health.

We also have small units at the end of the course on energy balance and weight control, and nutrition and exercise to bring all of these concepts together.

So you adapt the course to changing times?

Definitely. For example the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans report, published earlier this year, now focuses on a lifespan approach. So now we discuss how public health guidance might change with this new approach.

We explore some of these new topics through class projects and critical reflection papers. My favorite project is related to food guides from around the world. The students investigate pictorial guides and translated written recommendations from different countries to determine common themes, then apply that knowledge to create their own food guide for the Wolfpack community.

How did you become interested in nutrition?

I entered NC State in 2006 as a biochemistry major. In my biochem courses we were exploring biochemical pathways, and what fascinated me most was the discussion of metabolism.

At the same time, I was a teaching assistant for Bob Patterson’s World Population and Food Prospects course, and a lot of the topics we picked for readings for the class were related to food and culture and nutrition. One day he sat me down and said, “Natalie, I think you’re interested in nutrition.”

So he connected me with Sarah Ash to learn more about the major, and Sarah introduced me to Suzie Goodell, who taught me how we can use nutrition education in the community and ultimately became my faculty mentor for my doctorate. After meeting with them, I immediately added a second major in nutrition, and the rest is history.

I really enjoy how our major is a combination of nutritional biochemistry and applied community and public health nutrition. This prepares our students to understand the complexity of the science and helps them build nutrition education skills to connect with community members while having conversations about food.

Why do you think it’s important to have nutrition and other wellness courses in the curriculum?

Nutrition is linked to wellness because the foods we eat have an impact on our physical and mental health. But food is just one piece of the puzzle. Human health is multifactorial, impacted by all sorts of factors such as genetics, physical activity and the environment.

Food is also very personal, and there are cultural and social components — think about family recipes and how food can bring us together, whether we’re cooking or eating. Food is often at the center of community gathering and togetherness. Nutrition ties into all of this. It is fundamental to the study of human health and wellbeing, as both a basic and applied science.

I believe it’s important for NC State to offer courses like Introduction to Human Nutrition, not just for our majors, but also for any student who wants to better understand or enhance their own health and wellbeing.

This post was originally published in NC State News.

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