June 11, 2017

Cornell Nutrition: What I Learned Sophomore Year

Last summer, a good friend and I took the afternoon to catch up, each recapping our freshman experiences and memories, both speculating, excitedly, what sophomore year would bring. Though our studies are very different - engineering and nutrition - we both looked forward to taking upper level classes, ones that are more specific to what we wanted to learn. 

My friend asked me what nutrition students study, what our classes are like. Honestly, I had never considered that question before! I assumed that most people understood how similar our undergraduate path is to that of pre-med/health/vet students. At the same time, I had only known about the dietetics path from an outsider's perspective then: Emory only offered a nutrition minor, and I had only taken one intro nutrition course. I was about to become an insider, a real nutrition major at Cornell, but I had never received dietetics-specific advising nor had I taken any classes offered through an undergraduate DPD!

I've had the privilege to spend my second year of college at Cornell, the birthplace of Nutritional Sciences, and this post serves to briefly introduce the lesser-known dietetics path while sharing my sophomore year experiences, memories, lessons learned, current philosophy, and future aspirations, all in regards to nutrition!

Caramelized Banana Maple Pecan Oats
So let's begin:

What is a dietitian (in the US)?
A registered dietitian (RD, or also RDN - registered dietitian nutritionist) is currently the only accredited degree that someone in the nutrition field can hold. There are nutritionists, health coaches, nutrition researchers, and nutrition majors, but these individuals may not necessarily hold this credential.

 An RD/RDN provides expert guidance and advice regarding food and nutrition. Like medicine, there are various concentrations within dietetics as well - sports nutrition, pediatric nutrition, geriatric nutrition, global health.

What is the dietetics path (in the US)?
You can become a dietitian via two main paths (both of which are the most rigorous compared to international paths):

1. Undergraduate:
You must attend a school that offers an accredited DPD (Didactic Program in Dietetics), which I'd say is somewhat analogous to an undergraduate nursing or architecture program (it's career focused, whereas pre-meds/vets are only required to take specific classes to apply to medical/vet school before taking their career-focused classes during their graduate studies).

At Cornell, those interested in dietetics are not required to study nutrition as a major, but most do - it's easier to fulfill the dietetics requirements that way. As juniors or seniors, pre-dietetics apply to Cornell's DPD program. If they're accepted, they officially become dietetics students.

There are many required classes, both the general sciences and nutrition-specific, and many overlap with pre-med/health/vet requirements (statistics, general biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, etc.). I'm not sure how varied these requirements are from DPD to DPD, but all DPDs must be accredited by ACEND, the official Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

After graduation/completion of a DPD, post-bachelors must undergo a Dietetic Internship (DI), which is somewhat analogous to a medical residency (don't want to discredit the extra work, effort, time that medical students undergo, but I wanted to provide some kind of comparison to reference!). Getting an internship is competitive as very few positions are offered at each institution, and very few institutions are accredited/offer them. Post-bachelors must be "matched" with an institution, a process similar to that of medical residents.

At least 1200 hours of supervised practice must be completed in a variety of environments. There are "rotations", and each internship involves a clinical (ex: hospital), community (ex: food pantry or school), and food service management (ex: food service provider, like Sodexo) component. The amount of time spent with each of the three main areas varies from internship to internship. Some internships also incorporate graduate classes to decrease the amount of time required to achieve a Master's later.

After the internship is completed, a final RD exam is taken to become a licensed registered dietitian!

In a few years, registered dietitians will also be required to hold a graduate degree (at least a Master's; this decision was made this past year). Continued education is also required, and credits can be obtained through a variety of ways.

2. Graduate:
I'm less familiar with this path, but I considered it last year, out of the desire to not transfer from Emory.

Those who studied a major outside of nutrition and wishes to pursue dietetics as a career enrolls in a school that offers an accredited CP (Coordinated Program in Dietetics). This is the graduate version of a DPD , where students take the courses that prepare them for the internship and test, and can result in a BA or MS/MPH.

Like the undergraduate path, graduates of a CP are required to undergo the dietetic internship and take the final RD exam. All requirements once the license is obtained apply as well!

Alright, so onto my experience this past year!

Pumpkin Muffins I made in my nutrition/food lab
What classes did you take?
Fortunately, God didn't fully take away my desire to become a veterinarian last year. I took general biology/lab and general chemistry/lab, both full year courses, that enabled me to take the upper level science classes that I took this year.

Fall 2016: 
Organic Chemistry I (DPD/NS)
Biometry/Biological Statistics I (DPD/NS)
Social Perspectives of Food (DPD/NS)
Biological and Physicochemical Aspects of Food (DPD/NS)
Food for Contemporary Living Lab (DPD)
Communications - Personal Branding & Implementation of an ePortfolio (NS)

Spring 2017:
Organic Chemistry II (DPD/NS)
Organic Chemistry Lab (DPD/NS)
Human Anatomy and Physiology (DPD/NS)
Human Anatomy and Physiology Lab (DPD)
Nutrition Through the Life Cycle (DPD/NS)
Independent Study (shadowing a dietitian at a long-term care center)

*DPD = required dietetics course
  NS = required Nutritional Sciences major course (may include school related distribution reqs.)

What nutrition-related extracurriculars were you involved with?

I began a photojournalism/blog project, called Food for Thought Project. This outlet has been a great way for me to interact with my local community and learn more about agriculture! FFT Project has given me the opportunity to speak with Cornell Chronicle, be featured on Hot Potato Press (publication by Ithaca's GreenStar Community Projects), and write for Food Grads.

Worked at a cafe in Cornell's Statler Hotel - food service management is one of the areas that Cornell's DPD director advises students to get experience in. Met some incredible people here, too!

Member of the Cornell University Dietetics Association (CUDA), a pre-professional group that hosts discussions, panels (including one featuring international dietitians and dietetics students!), Q&As about the dietetics path, cooking demonstrations, among many other events.

Maybe this blog counts, too? I'll leave that up to you.

Slow Cooker Korean Shortrib Sandwiches (feat. homemade pretzel rolls)
What's Cornell Nutritional Science Department's nutrition philosophy?
Prior to coming to Cornell, I spent quite a bit of time learning about up-and-coming research and food trends that social media websites promoted.

Cornell, on the other hand, approaches nutrition with an evidence-based focus. There is less of a focus on recent trends; this is not to discredit or ignore them, but I've learned that the department wants to teach us what years of research supports as opposed to a few years/months. Science changes so much (classic ex: the fat-free craze in the 70's/80's), and it's reasonable to pass down reliable information that's withstood the test of time.

My classes have also emphasized the importance of dietary patterns over individual foods and diet fads. Given the word "pattern", the focus on dietary patterns promotes the view of looking at a snapshot of someone's eating habits over time. We all have days when we don't eat as many vegetables as we should, or when we spoil ourselves and indulge in cake for breakfast. Dietary patterns allows for these exceptions to exist in the context of an overall nutritionally balanced way of eating. Again, this is not to discredit superfoods (some do exist and offer significant amounts of difficult to obtain nutrients), but to focus on a balanced approach towards healthy eating.

So far, these classes have also focused on the basics of nutrition - macronutrients and micronutrients. These are not the end all be all approaches to nutrition and eating, but they have built up the foundation of my nutrition knowledge.

The main nutrition recommendation? Eat a balanced diet that includes foods from all food groups. This is very straightforward, and it's not that complicated for most healthy individuals. Though it sounds easier said than done, there's no need to buy into what a lot of self-help books that "health gurus" and health websites advise - I've recognized that most times, the recommendations from these books/sites are targeted to a very small demographic who is fortunate enough to buy and have access to certain kinds of foods.

You might be asking, why pursue a career when this recommendation is so straightforward? Well, people are different and everyone has a unique, individualized balance - I'll talk more about this below.

Lastly, education, like politics, is at risk of being influenced by interest groups. Cornell's Ag school (which is one of the two that offers the nutritional sciences major) is no exception. I won't go into the details about a few stories I heard, but I will say that these stories have given me a heads up to be more critical of my education, both at Cornell and throughout life.

What are some important lessons that you learned from your classes this year?
My biggest take away is that food and nutrition are more than just eating, digestion, and food science. The classes I took this year made me realize that nutrition requires a multi-disciplinary approach to food, nutrition, and human health.

My Social Perspectives class was taught by the sociologist who invented the Food Choice Pyramid. Food choice is complex, and there are a host of psychological, sociological, physical factors that contribute to a single choice. It's not just about choosing "what's healthiest", and understanding the complexity of food choice enables me to be more considerate when advising future clients/patients.

Biological and Physicochemical Aspects of Food was primarily a food science class. As the course name suggests, we studied the biological/physical/chemical characteristics of different foods (ex: gelatinization vs. gelation with carbohydrates), food science reactions (ex: Maillard), and food safety and governmental regulations.

Nutrition lab (Food for Contemporary Living) was an application of both food science principles and nutrition recommendationsWe got to cook each lab and test the effects of occasional substitutions and modifications to recipes. My favorite takeaway comes from the lab's menu planning project. I was required to design a day's worth of nutritionally balanced, palatable, and colorful meals under $5.36, (for the whole day!). This number is not arbitrary; $5.36 is outlined by the USDA in the Thrifty Food Plan as the cheapest food plan for a woman for one day. This challenge truly opened my eyes to the challenges of living and preparing healthy meals at the poverty line.

In Nutrition Through the Lifecycle, we learned about the nutrient requirements at each stage in life and why requirements change. This course was very human health/medical science focused, but we also dedicated a significant amount of time towards community nutrition by learning about current US governmental programs (ex: SNAP, WIC, School Lunch).

The last one I'll mention is Human Anatomy and Physiology - you can't get an education dedicated more to human health/medical science than this! (And this girl still loves her dissections)

See more infographics that I've designed here

What are some important lessons you learned outside of the classroom this year?
Working in food service: the handling of ingredients varies from place to place, and this is a concern regarding allergens. I also learned, first-hand, the difficulties of working in the food service industry, from scheduling/hours to food safety to quality and consistency.

Research with Princeton's Busara Center of Economics: I was a volunteer research assistant for a study that took place at a food pantry in Trenton, NJ. This was my first time at a food pantry, and I developed an understanding of this specific food pantry's logistics. Additionally, interacting with the customers exposed me to people of different walks of life. Their stories and this experience were incredibly humbling.

Teaching at Bright Horizons (in regards to nutrition): feeding young kids was a big part of my job, and through mealtimes and snacks, I learned what developmental and growth milestones to expect at different stages, what I find to be a practical medical and nutrition insight (physical growth influences nutrient requirements)! I noticed how varied the effort put into meals can be from household to household - not everyone cares about nutrition and food like the nutrition bubble does! Convenience and budget both strongly influence eating, and the foods packed/served at early ages strongly influence dietary habits/taste preferences later in life.

Working with a dietitian at a long-term health care center: the demographic I served was a stark contrast to the children I worked with at Bright Horizons. Here, I was exposed to the varied effects of aging on people (cognitive, physical, emotional, social). Through menu planning, I picked up on how different tastes and food trends are from generation to generation. I performed nutrition calculations and learned about the math/equations behind health. My time here also exposed me to the constraints of working with restricted funds (in a place run with a business mentality), treatment of diseases through nutrition, and the case-by-case necessity for supplements - even unhealthy, processed health shakes have their place/value!

Look forward to a summer farmers' market photo journal, with tips regarding 
sustainable and local sourcing, to be published at the end of this summer!
My nutrition philosophy right now and my future goals:
My main goal when I become a dietitian is to help people find their unique, individualized balance. Given how varied physical needs, financial circumstances, cultural backgrounds, lifestyles, and personal values are, nutrition recommendations need to be tailored to accommodate each person's values, habits, needs, stage in life, and lifestyle. There's no one way to eat!

At the same time, I'd like to help each person find ways to live and eat in an environmentally conscious manner - to the best of their abilities, provided their circumstances. Personally, I try my best to eat local when possible and to get to know my ingredients and farmers.

Another concept that I value and would like to encourage is to not seek perfectionism when pursuing health. Health and nutrition are not religions. Adopting a perfectionist attitude towards health/nutrition can lead to disordered eating habits - restrictive lifestyles and mentalities that can consume someone. Orthorexia is a new area of research, and I've experienced orthorexic tendencies myself - I can personally attest to how crippling this mentality can be, and I don't want anyone to go through something like this.

The million dollar question is: how do I implement this all in one career?

To be honest, I'm not quite sure. What I love about the field of nutrition/dietetics is the flexibility it offers, so there are many possible positions and working environments ahead. As I continue with my education and gain additional experiences, I'll be able to discern specific qualities that I'd like in a job. For now, I'll continue to explore my interests! (Search for Chef Hopkins's advice here)

Currently, areas and topics within nutrition that particularly concern/interest me are:
  • pediatrics
  • oncology
  • eating disorders
  • food insecurity and hunger
  • sustainability
  • animal welfare
  • culinary arts
I'd like to tackle as many of these concerns or explore as many interests as I can through two main career focuses: clinical nutrition and communications (involving writing and content creation). 

Ultimately, I'd like to serve people, uplifting and empowering them through education and physical healing, strengthening their self-confidence. If it's possible, a practice that is people-centered and meaningful, while still creatively fulfilling, would be fantastic ;] ... (maybe at Disney World, too?)

For now, I leave my future up to God and will continue finding joy in education, experiences, and creative endeavors!


If you've made it to the end, thank you so much for taking the time to read through this lengthy post! I sincerely appreciate your time, and if you have any questions, feel free to send me a message or leave them in the comments below!



  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and goals. I always enjoy reading your posts, in particularly including so many beautiful photos of food and people. In this one, I love the way you put it energizing your body explained by car. Hannah, may God be with you and guide you all the steps of your way.
    Love, Grand-Auntie Amy :-)

    1. Oh, Auntie Amy, thank you so much for your sweet words :')! So nice to hear from you, and your comment brings me so much encouragement. I hope you've had a great Sunday, and I hope to see you in a few weeks!