Nutrition at Dartmouth

by Carolyn Zhou | 3/3/16 7:15pm

It’s finals week. You haven’t slept in 20 hours, and you’ve been at the library for almost the whole day. Your stomach growls, reminding you of the fact that you skipped breakfast and lunch. Where will you go to get food? The logical place to go to is Novack or KAF; right after you eat a pastry and get some coffee, you can get back to studying. But last night, you think, you ate mac-and-cheese bites at Late Night Collis, and the night before that you and your roommate ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream from CVS. Suddenly, you can’t remember the last time you had a proper meal or ate a vegetable. If your KAF pastry is raspberry-flavored, does that count as a fruit?

Put simply, college students it’s easy for us to forget to nourish ourselves properly.

Fortunately, there are a number of resources at our fingertips. Dick’s House provides counseling for those who need guidance in eating a balanced diet. KC Wright, the College’s nutritionist, gave me insight into how to eat healthy on campus.

Wright has worked at Dartmouth for three years. Previously, she worked at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s cardiology clinic. When I asked why she came to work at the College, she responded that she enjoys helping students adjust to the new independence they face when they come to college, especially in regard to their diets.

“College students are transitioning. It’s the first time for many to actually put some thought into what they eat,” Wright said. “This gives me an opportunity to affect their overall health and give them a good foundation to have a great Dartmouth career and beyond.”

Wright also added that she enjoys the opportunity to have discussions with students about nutrition and food reform on a broader scale.

“Campuses are great incubators for social action and social issues. One of my passions is thinking about and reforming our broken food system,” Wright said. “I like working with students to try to increase awareness about [the defects of] our food system.”

One way Wright increases awareness is through her involvement with Food Day, a national event on Oct. 24 that aims to change the way we think about nutrition, sustainability and food worker rights. She described it as kind of an Earth Day for food. She helped bring Food Day to campus by planning a documentary screening and organizing speakers to come to campus.

Wright said her passion for education relating to food came partly from her experiences working as a cardiologist at DHMC. She said that here, she enjoys working with adolescents whose food habits haven’t yet become totally unchangeable.

“At DHMC, I worked with people in their 50s and 60s, people whose food habits had become engrained, and I would see the same [problem] over and over again. We’re coming in the back door. We’ve focused more on fixing instead of preventing,” she said.

Another strong influence on her interest in food and healthy eating, Wright said, was her experiences cooking when she was growing up.

“When I was a child, my mother had a garden, and she did most of the cooking. She would cook with wholesome ingredients. When I became a young teenager, my mother was diagnosed with a debilitating chronic disease and suddenly the garden went untended and the kitchen became empty,” Wright said. “With my father busy with his high pressure job, I took on the responsibility to cook. When cooking, I had to keep in mind the needs of the other members of my family.”

She explained that in addition to her mother battling an illness, she had a growing 6-year-old sister and a father who had high blood pressure. Figuring out how to keep her family eating healthily influenced her greatly in deciding on a career path.

As Dartmouth’s primary nutritionist, she spends most of her day meeting with students. Some students come to her regularly, but others come only once or on occasion. When she’s not advising students, she tries to keep up with the research in her field.

“Nutrition is a relatively young science. We’re continually learning,” she explained. “I try to read up on research, so I can give people advice based on the most recent data available.”

Wright works closely with the Dartmouth Dining Services nutritionist, who decides what is served in the dining halls. Furthermore, she often partakes in outreach events — you can occasionally catch her at an information table in the Class of 1953 Commons.

Wright said that her job does involve challenges. One main challenge, she said, is the cooperativeness (or lack thereof) of her clients.

“Young people sometimes think they’re invincible,” she commented.

Due to this, Wright remarked that she sometimes she has trouble getting students to understand the long-term consequences of their actions, such as excessive alcohol consumption. Despite these challenges Wright said that she greatly enjoys working with the student population.

“I like working with college students. I like seeing them try to make a difference in their health habits. [I prefer working with younger people] as opposed to 60-year-olds, who are essentially trying to put bandages on things,” Wright said. “I like influencing young adults as they are transitioning into adulthood.”

She said she especially likes it when students take the information she’s conveyed with them beyond Dartmouth.

“When I talk to upperclassmen, it’s nice to learn that they’re taking some of these pearls of knowledge onto the next stages of their lives,” Wright said.

Wright said works with a diverse array of students, including undergraduates, graduate students and international students.

“We all have to eat,” she reasoned.

However, as students, we face the challenge of eating healthily on campus. According to Wright, eating healthily sometimes takes more time, effort and money. Sometimes the options right at our fingertips are not ideal for our health ­— but since they’re convenient, we fall back on them.

Another problem she cited is how society has changed; food, especially unhealthy food, is often so easily accessible, a far cry from our hunter-gather ancestors. Moreover, most jobs nowadays involve a lot of sitting down.

Wright said people might also eat insensibly due to a pressure to be thin here at Dartmouth,

“There are psychological roadblocks. We have a culture at Dartmouth where [there’s pressure for] everyone [to] look alike, everyone should be a certain size, females should be small, males should have six packs,” Wright said. “Many students are athletes, and there’s a certain body image tied to that.”

I asked Wright what she tells students who struggle with body image at Dartmouth.

“Recognize that it’s okay to find pleasure in food. It appeals to so many things: our sense of taste, smell and sight,” she said. “Food is a basic human need.”

Olivia Samson ’16 , a member of the swimming and diving team, echoed similar views. Even though she’s an athlete, she said there’s no explicit pressure from her coaches to eat or diet in a certain way. Instead, she said, athletes simply eat in way to fuel themselves. That being said, Samson remarked that eating in college involves a lot of self-control.

“In Foco, the first thing you walk by is all of the junk food. So eating here does take self control,” she said. “Take Foco cookies, for example. I’m sure the College uses them as a selling point.”

However, Wright said, it’s perfectly okay to treat yourself occasionally.

“One meal doesn’t define your health,” Wright explained. “It’s the variety [of your diet] over time, [your eating] patterns, that dictate whether you’re healthy or not.”

She mentioned that it’s normal to eat a little more when you’re stressed — it’s an adaptive human trait. Thus, it’s okay if there are some days we eat a little more than normal (especially around midterms and finals) and if there other days when we eat less.

“Normal eating is not perfect eating,” she said. “It’s okay to occasionally eat that big slice of cake if you’re feeling stressed about that chemistry exam. However, constantly relying on food to soothe anxiety on a regular basis is dangerous.”

Above all, Wright said, having a healthy mindset is important. She said we need to allow ourselves to be okay with occasionally indulging.

“Reject the diet mentality. Reject the idea of the food police,” Wright said. “Reject the ‘fat talk,’ such as saying ‘I’m so fat, I shouldn’t have eaten that.’ Sometimes we do eat for reasons other than hunger, and that’s okay.”

She said that we need to not judge ourselves so much. She added that we also shouldn’t judge others, as everyone has different genes.

Wright believes in eating wholesome, organic food. She is a proponent of a plant-based diet, but not necessarily a completely vegetarian diet. Although humans are designed as carnivores, she believes that it’s best to avoid high meat diets — not only are they not good for our health, as they are associated with increased risk of heart disease and cancer, and mass-scale meat production negatively impacts the environment.

Wright also urged students to take action. She believes that we should all plant something, share a garden plot or visit a farmer’s market, and that in doing so we will come to appreciate our food more. It’s important to learn about where our food comes from, she added.

Wright also spoke about the benefits of cooking. She suggested Googling a simple five ingredient dish or trying to make a family recipe.

She had a couple of suggestions for Dartmouth students specifically. She believes that there are enough healthy options for food on campus, but that it takes time and effort to treat yourself correctly. She said, though, that it’s worth the effort to nourish your body properly.

AnnClaire MacArt ’18 , Samson’s teammate, expressed a similar sentiment about eating at Dartmouth.

“If you take the time to get creative with your options, it is really quite easy to eat healthily here,” MacArt said. “I believe there is a misconception with what it means to have a healthy diet — that it is too challenging or too limiting.”

MacArt said she strives for balance in eating, and that she finds that manageable here.

“My goal every day is to strive for balance with food intake while still enjoying what I eat, and I find that for the most part, it is something I can achieve on campus,” MacArt said.

When asked if she thought if DDS had enough variety, she answered affirmatively.

“Whether it be the vegetarian/vegan section of Foco, or the countless vegan baked good options at Collis, there definitely is always something out there for everyone,” she said. “You just have to look for it.”

MacArt has visited Wright, but she personally did not find the visit to be too informative, as she said she is already well-versed in topics regarding nutrition.

“I actually have seen the nutritionist once, surprisingly, I already knew most of the things she told me,” MacArt said. “In the past months I instead have done a lot of research on nutrition on my own that has been more informative for me. It was worth the time to go speak with her, but it is not something I think I would regularly do.”

MacArt said, though, that such a visit would be helpful for students with less prior knowledge about healthy eating.

“I already have a great interest in ways to live a healthy lifestyle, so I could see how meeting with the nutritionist would be beneficial for someone who is not as involved or aware of their own nutrition,” she added.

Although not all students will seek her help, Wright still holds an important role within the college; she is available to those who might need some direction in their eating habits. This is something that, at least from my perspective, everyone could benefit from.

The last piece of advice Wright gave me was for us to voice our opinions about what we like and don’t like to DDS.

“Vote with your fork. You’re the customer. Let DDS know if you want local or sustainable food,” she said. “Change takes time, but it can be done.”