At Sam Houston State University, fitness and nutrition are viewed as two equally important components of wellbeing that the recreation department does its best to tackle head on for the sake of its student population. The Nutrition Education program at Sam Houston started two years ago after staff at the rec department began receiving an increasing number of questions about nutrition—often questions they didn’t feel qualified to answer.
Scott Berkowitz, Assistant Director of Fitness, explains, “The idea [for the Nutrition Education program] came from not having the staff or funds to educate students on nutrition. After meeting with everyone in Family and Consumer Sciences, it turns out they had been wanting to do something like this but didn’t know who to go to. It was definitely a great match because we had both been looking for one another!” He goes on to say, “This program started as a trial with a freshman level Lifetime Health and Wellness class to see how much interest we would get from our student population.” In the end, they received great feedback on the trial program and decided to move forward with a full-time Nutrition Education program. This entails Sam Houston State University Recreational Sports serving as a rotation site for graduate interns from the Dietetic Master’s program.
It was fairly easy to get buy-in to start the Nutrition Education program, but it was a challenge to get buy-in when it came to administering the program a certain way. “The hardest part was explaining that the graduate interns wouldn’t be doing consultations, but would be talking to students about basic nutrition, educating them on healthy food options on campus, and how to calculate their needs. We did have to meet on a variety of occasions at the beginning to explain that participants were only signing up for a dedicated appointment so we could contact them and assist with holding them accountable,” explains Scott.
The program benefits both the graduate interns and the students they’re serving since rec sports helps the graduate dietetic interns meet the requirement for the community nutrition part of their rotation. Each intern is typically at the rec center about 30 hours per week for two weeks at a time and there are anywhere from four to six interns participating in the program each semester. Initially, students signed up for slotted times with the interns, but they have since moved away from that model.
Under that initial model, the rec department viewed those scheduled meetings as a way to hold students accountable to their nutrition goals. The meetings also allowed easy documenting of when each intern was educating a student and allowed close tracking of progress. Family and Consumer Sciences, however, deemed those meetings to potentially be construed as consultations and decided they should not continue to be available as part of the program. “While we aren’t able to schedule times,” Scott says, “students are given the times our dietetic interns are here and are able to come talk with them anytime—whether it’s at a tabling event, special event on campus, inside a group fitness class, etc.” Accessibility has not been a barrier for the Nutrition Education program. “We’ve had great success going to events on campus, tabling in our facility, calculating calories while a student is in our facility, meeting with personal training clients while they go through a fitness assessment with a personal trainer, and much more,” says Scott.
How nutrition education works at Sam Houston State
During their rotations, each dietetic intern is required to find a problem with the nutrition of the student population and develop a game plan for how they would educate someone once they become a registered dietitian. “This has allowed us to provide a more holistic approach to being healthy outside of just exercise,” explain Scott. Once the intern has found this issue, they are required to research healthy ways to meet the needs of and educate the student population.
One example is an intern looking into the dangers of pre-workout, which she saw a large number of students using before their workouts. She did some research and provided students with healthy alternatives to get energy for exercising. She also met with students who had additional questions. Other topics that have come up over the years include hydration, how much protein does someone really need, and educating students with facts about fad diets.
A very recent Nutrition Education project was a spin-off of Game of Thrones. “Our intern came up with a ‘Finals are Coming’ project to help educate students on healthy ways to make it through finals and educate them on the dangers of pulling all-nighters, consuming excessive amounts of caffeine, and more,” says Scott.
While the Dietetic Master’s program provides the interns, the Nutrition Education program is fully administered by the rec sports department. The interns arrive at rec sports with the expectation that they are going to get experience in community nutrition, and each intern has a list of requirements that must be met based on what they do during their rotation. “This checklist is reviewed by me, signed off on, and submitted to the Dietetic Internship Director,” explains Scott.
Students are at the center
The benefits to the student population have been obvious over the two years the program has been in place. The interns provide four to six new topics each semester for the campus community to consider and some have even referred students to the health center when they suspect an underlying issue may need to be addressed by a physician or medical professional. Interns can provide nutrition education to students who might not be able to afford it otherwise and over the years they’ve developed a library of reliable information to share with the campus community. Thanks to the Nutrition Education program, Sam Houston’s campus is more informed than the average college campus when it comes to nutrition.
“With my education and experience, I know that nutrition is more important than exercise. The lack of nutrition education will generally lead to a lack of exercise because overall health is not fully understood, goals are not being met, and the list could go on,” says Scott. “Those who have a good understanding about nutrition and live a healthy lifestyle, generally have a sound exercise plan with an understanding that the food they put in their body is fuel. You can’t out train a bad diet. The physical fitness component of wellness encompasses more than just exercise. Here at Sam Houston State University, we believe that we need to educate our students—that an active, healthy lifestyle includes a good diet along with a good exercise program.”
Sam Houston doesn’t have an on-campus dietician so the Nutrition Education program is providing a needed service to its student population. Being able to offer the dietetic interns as a resource to the campus community through the rec center and free of charge has been incredibly satisfying for Scott. “I have always lived by, ‘You can’t out train a bad diet.’ No matter what is done, our students need to exercise and eat healthy. The more people we educate, the more people that will see that there is a bond between nutrition and exercise that must exist,” he says.
The Nutrition Education program has actually led to the development of a new program called Intro to Fitness which is focused on non-participants; 73% of individuals who signed up for this free program had never been to the rec center. After meeting, only 19% of those students chose to not participate in a rec sports program. Each participant in Intro to Fitness meets with a dietetic intern or has questions forwarded to them. “It has been very satisfying seeing this program evolve and having the ability to provide a nutrition education component as a way to get people into our facility,” says Scott.
Scott sees no reason Sam Houston’s Nutrition Education program couldn’t be replicated. “There are universities all over the country that have dietetic programs, both at the graduate and undergraduate level, that require students to have internships,” he explains. “After learning more about our graduate dietetic program, I also learned that students are sent all over the place for these hours and require a certain amount to be in community nutrition. If a university does not have a dietetic program but a nearby university does, it wouldn’t hurt to reach out and express interest in being a rotation site.”
You can do this!
It seems like Nutrition Education really is a program that could exist at any university—it simply requires a strong desire to better your students’ wellbeing and a willingness to collaborate.
As Scott puts it, “The overall goal of the program is to make nutrition education easily accessible to our campus population.” Sam Houston State Recreational Sports has had great success with its Nutrition Education program and given that it’s only two years old and still evolving, there’s little doubt the future holds great things for the program and the students it will serve.
- For more information, please contact Sam Houston State University Assistant Director of Fitness Scott Berkowitz.
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