Fueled by food

New dietetics degree is path to health professions

Recently renamed and revised, the bachelor of science in human nutrition will prepare students—through an all-encompassing, rigorous degree program—for their futures as physicians, physical therapists and health professionals. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Nutrition and dietetics is more than helping people choose foods, said Riley Kimball. It’s all about health.

“Diseases can be caused by over or under nutrition,” said Kimball, a senior majoring in human nutrition and pre-physician assistant studies from Park Rapids, Minn. “Having a degree in nutrition is a great background for any medical career.”

Kimball is one of the first students in a revised degree program, the bachelor of science in human nutrition, formerly community nutrition. It’s meant for students who plan to become physicians, physician assistants, occupational and physical therapists and other health professionals.

Though the degree is new, the route is not.

“In the last eight years, many nutrition students have gone on to medical school or other health professions,” said Desiree Tande, associate professor and chair of nutrition & dietetics in the College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines. “It’s a very applied human science that has useful information and appeals to students.”

Tande added that besides being well-prepared, UND dietetics students have field training, internships, service learning or other supervised practice.

“It offers a unique opportunity to develop professional skills under a practitioner,” Tande said. “It helps with their interview because they have professional experience, client or patient interaction.”

The new degree encompasses the full depth and breadth of human nutrition, with more science requirements for students who plan to enter graduate school or professional programs. The bachelor of science in dietetics is for students who want to pursue sports nutrition, health promotion or nutrition education for clients with conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease or celiac disease.

One thing that both degrees have in common is that alumni often mentor current students.

“What’s consistent in both programs is that preceptors gift their time and expertise to our students at no charge,” said Tande. “The alumni pay it forward, and students see that. Community members seek out our students. They call the department with internships and job opportunities. They go above and beyond.”

Earning a degree in human nutrition can be beneficial toward a variety of medical careers. Alumni regularly interact with the College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines, providing opportunities to put knowledge to practice in the real world. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Personal attention

“I love that the faculty and staff say hello,” Kimball said. “They ask how we’re doing, how class was, how the test was. We feel heard by our professors.”

“The faculty and staff are wonderful,” said Taya Helstad, a sophomore from Williston, N.D., majoring in human nutrition and health studies who also plans to be a physician assistant. “I haven’t had teachers and staff care for me like this since high school. The professors get to know you. I love the variety of my days. I’m taking organic chemistry and cell biology, and balancing it with nutrition classes. This is engaging learning that’s applicable to life.”

Helstad will spend her summer at Great Plains Women’s Health Clinic in Williston, where she will work as a CNA (certified nursing assistant) and earn patient care hours, which, along with being a great experience, could also boost her chances of being accepted into a physician assistant program.

Helstad, who has a passion for women’s health, said she’s wanted to work in the health field since second grade.

“Nutrition is also an interest,” Helstad said. “Lives can be changed through diet.”

Helstad knows that first-hand. She learned she was lactose intolerant during her senior year of high school.

“It changed my view of nutrition,” she said. “I became aware of the foods I was eating and changed my diet drastically. Even my family changed for me.”

Kimball also said that her diet has changed since majoring in human nutrition.

“Now I eat whole foods, fruit, vegetables,” she said. “I eat less junk food and go out to eat less. I’ve started to like cooking. My favorite meal is chicken anything! I love homemade pizza on pita bread.”

Kimball has worked as a CNA in an assisted living facility, and has also spent time as a research assistant to a faculty member in the department, where she worked with the Grand Forks Farmers Market. That experience has only cemented her desire to enter the medical profession.

“I grew up in a rural area and want to work in rural Minnesota,” Kimball said, adding she’s most interested in family medicine or gerontology. “I want to work in a small town and be with patients from their first checkup throughout their lives. I want to build relationships.”

“Students often ask why more students don’t know about the major,” said Tande, who began pursuing the name and degree change a couple of years ago. “We want to give students options and flexibility.”