Hungry for experience, students give diet advice

Nutrition students offer free peer-to-peer consultations.

by Allison Kronberg

As an athlete, Jasmine Hardin knows how important it is to monitor a healthy diet. But the University of Minnesota political science and African American studies senior admits that it can be tough as a student on a college budget.

For the first time at the University, the student group Student Nutrition Advocacy Collaborative is piloting a peer-to-peer nutrition check-up program this semester, and the free program has been popular among students.

When the group of junior, senior and graduate nutrition students sent out an email to all students in March notifying them of the 70 check-up slots available before the end of the year, it took fewer than 20 minutes for the slots to fill up. The group responded by adding 56 more slots, which again filled in less than a day.

“I think the idea of peer education is a familiar environment,” said Boynton Health Service registered dietician and SNAC advisor Kathryn Kasner. “It doesn’t feel quite as clinical for a lot of students, so it feels a little safer.”

Kasner is one of several registered dieticians at Boynton whose job is to offer diet assessment services. She said peer-to-peer nutrition counseling can sometimes be more comfortable for college students.

“The SNAC students [are] college students, too. They are busy, too, and they understand the time constraints and skills that students might be struggling with, so they can empathize,” Kasner said.

After seeing other colleges’ success with peer-to-peer nutrition check-ups, Kasner said she was motivated to present the option to SNAC and the students were excited to volunteer their time.

“We’re all very hungry for experience,” said SNAC member and nutrition senior Ã├órica Rubino. “We all want to get better at what we’re doing, because a lot of us are looking to be registered dieticians after we’re done [with school].”

Students often find their nutrition advice on the Internet, she said, which can contain false information.

In a regular 45-minute check-up, Rubino said, she asks the student for a 24-hour diet recall, typically from the day before.

She then enters the recalled food items into the Nutrition Data System for Research,  which the University’s Nutrition Coordinating Center developed in 1988. The database contains more than 18,000 foods and assesses a person’s diet for values of 163 nutrients, then prints it out on an easy-to-read summary sheet.

After the diet assessment, Rubino said she offers an optional daily caloric intake estimate, goal setting or in-depth handouts on varied nutrition topics.

Kasner trains the SNAC students on motivational interviewing and database operation prior to their first check-up.

“The key thing about the nutrition check-ups is not that we’re telling students what to do,” Rubino said. “We’re helping students achieve whatever goals they have for themselves, and we’re just guiding them along the way.”

A challenge SNAC has had with the program is that students sometimes don’t show up, Kasner said, which they hope to combat in the future with phone and email confirmations.

The University’s nutrition database isn’t available for free to the public. But if students prefer to track their diet on their own, Rubino said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s offers a similar, but less thorough, diet assessment called SuperTracker.

Marketing sophomore Nathan Stensland had a nutrition check-up last week and said he would recommend it to other students.

“It’s just a fun, interactive way to learn about your diet,” he said, “and I guess I just thought it was really informative and something I’d never done before.”

SNAC will continue the program next year starting in mid-September, Kasner said. The group plans to add additional training and more slots per week.

Rubino said the experience has been invaluable to her career.

“We nutrition students have been studying this for a long time, and we’re very, very passionate,” she said. “We love food, we love learning about it, we love realizing how it affects our health and we have a lot of knowledge to share.”