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Striking A Balance

Template NameIn a section founded by Friedman School graduate Kimberley Hodgson, Tufts' nutrition students are helping classmates form a healthy relationship with food.

Kimberley Hodgson, N04, had chosen a difficult audience. Or as she put it, "It's hard to influence someone when they think they are invincible." The immortals in question? College students. The ones who make routine midnight runs to the campus convenience store for pints of Ben and Jerry's and fuel their all-nighters with Oreos and Coke. Even among nutritionally savvy students, it's rare to find an undergrad with a full course load, a full social life and the wherewithal to eat a balanced diet.

"College is such a difficult time because there is no time," said the recently married Hodgson, known to her classmates in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program by her maiden name, Kimberley Plut. "You are pulled in every which direction. You basically put your health on the back burner."

In such a pressure-cooker environment, students need all the nutrition help they can get. So last spring, Hodgson, then a master's degree student with a concentration in nutrition communication, approached the student newspaper, The Tufts Daily, about devoting a section to nutrition, exercise and general well-being. "Balance," written and edited by Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy students, now runs monthly throughout the school year. A typical section includes breaking nutrition news, feature articles, recipes and a Q & A with a physician, and may touch on topics as diverse as fad diets, eating disorders, genetically engineered foods, pesticides, supplements, sports and cooking.

With the idea that "people can relate more to personal stories," and following on a tradition of nutrition columns in The Tufts Daily, Hodgson, who edited the section in its first year, wrote many columns that sometimes lay bare her personal experiences with food and body image. Her first column was one of the hardest: She found herself describing a bout with irregularity while a student at New York University six years ago.

"I was obsessed with succeeding," she wrote of studying French civilization and culture with a pre-med concentration. "In the beginning, it was rewarding to see results from my hard work and determination; however, this all came to an abrupt end when my stress affected me physically. My body began to shut down."

"I never thought stress could do such funny things to people," she said. "Stress, that's what really affected me. I guess I got caught up in school and didn't pay attention to my own health."

In another column, she wrote about attending a fashion model search - and being told to lose 40 pounds if she wanted a shot at fame. "At 6-feet, 1-inch, 160 pounds and with a dress size 10, I might not be considered skinny by entertainment industry standards," she wrote, but "overall, I love my muscular, solid, lean, body. Without it, I would not be able to do the things I love most: bike, blade, hike, swim, run and walk."

The moral? "Health is beauty," she wrote.

Vegetables

"Students learn from each other, work on deadlines and have the opportunity to interact with the Tufts community and Tufts nutrition experts while researching information for articlesówithout grades or formal evaluations," says Emily Bergeron, a doctoral student in nutritional epidemiology at the Friedman School, who is now at the helm of "Balance."

Lessons from Abroad

Nutrition hasn't always been her strong suit. "When I was a freshman at NYU, I didn't care about eating properly," she said, explaining that she enjoyed going out and partying as much as the next student.

In her case, the freshman 15 became the freshman 30, which she worked hard to take off her sophomore year. But her current, healthy relationship with food didn't flourish until she spent her junior year in France. There, she saw food as part of the culture, something to be lovingly prepared and savored over two-hour lunches.

"I started to see things differently when I came back," she said. "It's about quality, and it's about portion sizes. It's about moderation, which Americans don't understand."

That's when she decided to take what she had learned as a pre-med student and turn it toward the study of nutrition. "I wanted to do more with the preventative side rather than the treatment side," she said. "I want to solve problems before they start."

Creating a newspaper section meant learning some new ropes. The last non-academic writing she had done was for her high school newspaper. And she was a bit shaken when her editor at The Tufts Daily asked for major changes before he would even edit her first couple articles.

Wanting to use her experience with "Balance" as a directed study, Hodgson sought out Alice H. Lichtenstein, the Stanley N. Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, as a faculty advisor.

"I looked up and saw her looming in the door," Lichtenstein said. "As soon as she got in and started talking, it was quite clear that she had a good concept of what was involved and that she really had the skills that were necessary."

Although Lichtenstein had no hand in producing the section, she sometimes acted as a sounding board for story ideas and saw that Hodgson documented her experience, including putting together a manual of operations so that "Balance" could continue after she graduated. Hodgson is now back at NYU, completing her dietetic internship and working on her new creation - urbanFUEL (Food for Ultimate Energy and Living), the nutrition component of the New York Road Runners Foundation's after-school running program.

This year, Emily Bergeron, a doctoral student in nutritional epidemiology at the Friedman School, is at the "Balance" helm. She has already heard from 21 other students who would like to work on the section, which she calls a "rare example of a learning experience that is uninhibited."

"Students learn from each other, work on deadlines and have the opportunity to interact with the Tufts community and Tufts nutrition experts while researching information for articles - without grades or formal evaluations," she said.

A registered dietitian with a master's degree in public health nutrition from Columbia University, she sees "Balance" as one step in improving the overall quality and accuracy of nutrition reporting.

"As a nutrition professional, it seemed I was battling a lot with the media," Bergeron said. In her nutrition classes, students were always discussing "the next big thing" in nutrition news and how it was likely to be misinterpreted by the press and misunderstood by the public.

Mixed Up Messages

Even bright college students are apt to mix it up.

As director of the Tufts Longitudinal Health Study, Christina D. Economos has followed the health habits of Tufts undergraduates over the past six years.

"A lot of them think they are doing OK, but their behaviors aren't really consistent with what they think they know," said Economos, an assistant professor at the Friedman School.

For example, a student may cut red meat out of his diet thinking he is helping his heart, but make up for it with more cheese, salad dressings and baked goods that could actually increase his intake of saturated fat.

In general, Economos said, students are looking for answers they can use now. "The questions are more immediate," she said. "They want to know how to eat a healthy diet without spending too much. They want to know what kind of supplements to take. They still have a belief that supplements will substitute for a good diet. They want to know if there is anything they can eat to relieve their stress. And in terms of exercise, they really are looking for ways to fit it in. The biggest complaint is they don't have enough time."

Those are the questions that "Balance" tries to answer, without coming across as trying to spoil the party. What's college, after all, without the occasional cold pizza for breakfast?

"We're not the food police, us nutritionists," Hodgson said, "so don't think that."


Profile written by Julie Flaherty.

This story originally appeared in the Fall issue of Tufts Nutrition. Photos by Edward Santalone.

This story originally ran on Jan. 10, 2005