Katie Ferraro, MPH, RD, CDE
Regardless of your area of teaching expertise, most educators would agree that a student’s likelihood of mastering a new subject is cemented in the earliest weeks of a class. Those students who really “get” the fundamentals will build a solid knowledge foundation, while those who struggle with the initial concepts will likely struggle throughout the entirety of the course. In teaching nutrition science, my colleagues and I often grapple with how to bring some of the more mundane core concepts of our subject matter to life in exciting and memorable ways for students.
When introducing students to the science of nutrition, it seems there is an endless parade of antiquated acronyms, complicated mathematical concepts and dreary government guidelines for instructors to slog through. Although these fundamental concepts are essential to the understanding of how foods function in our bodies, keeping students engaged – and enrolled – in these initial dark days can be a challenge. That is exactly why in recent years I have sought to incorporate interactive online tools that direct the learning experience of nutrition back on the individuals that students know the best…themselves!
Now there’s no doubt about it – students, like most human beings, love to talk about themselves. I’ve found that if I can keep the student engaged in the initial nutrition concepts by learning how they apply not just to a “general, healthy population” but to their direct, individual selves, I can keep them engaged long enough to get through the initial challenges of mastering the science of nutrition. What follows are a few of my favorite online, interactive tools that help engage students with the material in an Introduction to Nutrition Science course:
The dreaded Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) are a set of evidence-based nutrient recommendations for individuals in a variety of age and gender groups. They’re challenging to teach due to the slew of acronyms they accompany,
the inherently tedious nature of interpreting government tables, and confusing units of measurement for students who may not be familiar with grams vs. micrograms vs. milligrams. But students need to understand how the DRIs set the stage for a thorough understanding of human nutrition and nutrient study, so master them we must. And how to get tables of numbers to come to life? Turn them back on the student. The Interactive DRI for Healthcare Professionals is an online tool from the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Education Information Center. Although it is intended for healthcare professionals, it is appropriate for nutrition students as well. Students enter their own information (gender, age, height, weight and activity level) and create a personalized report to calculate their body mass index, daily calorie needs and minimum required values of macronutrients and micronutrients.
Once they have created their report, a scavenger-hunt type of exercise can be created to get them to compare the numbers on their personalized report to the values found in their specific age and gender groups in the DRI tables. The Interactive DRI for Healthcare Professionals tool can be found online at http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/fnic/interactiveDRI/.
Another great tool available from the USDA is SuperTracker, available at https://www.supertracker.usda.gov. This free, online program provides personalized nutrition and physical activity plans. It allows students to track their foods and physical activities and provides information and support to help individuals make healthier choices and plan ahead. In an introduction level nutrition course, SuperTracker is a great way to personalize the less interesting side of learning about USDA recommended portion sizes. Students can enter foods and activities and see how their current behaviors stack up against government recommendations for their given age and gender groups. They can join groups to collaborate on mutual goals, contribute to the journal feature to track progress or explore the Weight Manager if weight loss or weight gain is part of their individual journey to health.
American Diabetes Association’s MyFoodAdvisor
When learning about the impact of weight on the development of type 2 diabetes and the importance of dietary management of the disease state, students often become overwhelmed by the complexities of the diabetes disease process. Rather than inundate students with lecture material and statistics they tend to tune out, in my classes we assume the persona of a person newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. We use the American Diabetes Association’s MyFoodAdvisor (http://tracker.diabetes.org) to explore the variety of foods that are appropriate for a person with diabetes, to show the importance of preparing your own foods at home for optimal health outcomes, to search for recipes with particular nutrient parameters and to track intake and other parameters related to disease management. Students like learning that the “diabetes diet” is not drastically different from the basic, well-balanced diet they have already learned about.
Additional Interactive Online Tools for Nutrition Education
NHLBI Portion Distortion Interactive Quizzes – Downloadable slide sets useful for comparing current vs. historical food and beverage portion sizes: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/eat-right/portion-distortion.htm
USDA Ground Beef Calculator – Online calculator tool to compare the nutrient content of various percentages of lean/fat ground beef: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/beef/show
USDA – What’s in Season? Chart – Demonstrates the different seasonal offerings of fruits and vegetables to teach students about eating foods in season for meal planning on a budget: http://healthymeals.nal.usda.gov/features-month/whats-season
DHHS – A Healthier You Shopping List – Provides shopping list template for weekly meal planning: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/healthieryou/html/shopping_list.html
NOAA FishWatch.gov – Online database containing information about seafood and seafood nutrition to help students incorporate more seafood into their diets: http://www.fishwatch.gov
CDC Online Adult BMI and Child and Teen BMI Calculators – Online calculator tool for quickly calculating body mass index: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/index.html
American Heart Association Heart Attack Risk Calculator – Estimates the likelihood of having a heart attack within the next 10 years based on individual risk factors: https://www.heart.org/gglRisk/main_en_US.html
Cornell University Basal Energy Expenditure: Harris-Benedict Equation – Online calculator tool to estimate basal energy expenditure using the Harris-Benedict equations: http://www-users.med.cornell.edu/~spon/picu/calc/beecalc.htm