Q&A with Understanding Nutrition and Well-Being Author Katie Ferraro
Katie Ferraro, MPH, RD, CDE, author of Understanding Nutrition and Well-Being discusses her new web textbook, working with Connect For Education, and what it means to be a nutrition educator. Learn more about this title and its author.
Katie Ferraro: Did you know that in today’s food environment there are almost 30,000 new food and beverage items introduced onto store shelves each year? The influence for developing this title was to help students become more well-informed consumers and make better food choices for themselves and their families.
C4E: How does your webtext improve upon existing books?
KF: I have been a nutrition educator for almost 15 years. In this time I’ve seen nutrition theories and fads come and go. A webtext such as Understanding Nutrition and Well-Being is a great resource as it allows us to incorporate the latest and most up-to-date research that can’t always be captured in the traditional publishing model of print textbooks that take so long to write, publish and update.
C4E: How did you decide to organize the webtext the way you did?
KF: The foundation of understanding food and nutrition is based in science. Some students are actually surprised to learn that! They think, “Oh, I’ll just jump into nutrition and learn really fast which foods are ‘good’ and ‘bad’.” The reality is, you have to have a strong scientific understanding of nutrients before you can make educated decisions about food. The webtext is organized with an introduction to nutrients that then leads into applications for food-based choices.
C4E: What are your favorite assignments from the webtext – both for nutrition science and non-nutrition science majors?
KF: Students really take to nutrition when it applies to them as individuals. As such, my favorite assignments are those that allow students to apply their understanding of nutrition science to themselves. In two separate assignments that accompany the webtext, students do an individual self-diet analysis and also explore their own ecological footprint. They use their knowledge of the scientific concepts from class to apply to changes they can make to improve their health and impact on the planet.
C4E: What was it like to work with Connect for Education to develop Understanding Nutrition and Well-Being the webtext?
KF: I was ecstatic when Connect for Education approached me about the opportunity to develop this webtext. An introductory nutrition science course is offered at most community colleges and undergraduate institutions. With the flexible online web-based format, I was able to easily incorporate the areas of nutrition science that are of most importance and interest to students’ optimal learning. I really loved working with Andrea Adams of C4E, she kept me motivated and on deadline, which I have to admit I sometimes don’t have the capacity to do for myself when I am freelance writing.
C4E: What have been your favorite teaching experiences?
KF: Through my teaching position at the University of California San Francisco, I had the opportunity to develop the first human nutrition massive open online course (MOOC) offered by Coursera. Our MOOC “Nutrition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention” was offered to over 100,000 enrolled students from more than 100 countries around the world. That was a very eye opening entrance into the world of MOOCs and it actually made me appreciate my small, intimate, subject-specific online class students even more than ever.
C4E: Who were your most influential teachers/ mentors?
KF: My mom is a Registered Dietitian, as am I, and she inspired me to pursue a career in nutrition. I saw the benefit firsthand in our family of using food to promote good health and it seemed like a perfect career fit for me.
C4E: What are your favorite video examples to use in class?
KF: There’s a clip from the documentary Bigger, Faster, Stronger I always use to demonstrate how unregulated the supplement industry is. The movie is about steroids, but this particular clip shows the producers making a scam supplement company in one day using watered down ingredients and typical but misleading supplement marketing techniques to fleece consumers. It’s very impactful and really drives home the complicated concept of why an unregulated supplement industry has been allowed to proliferate in this country and how most people buying supplements are throwing their money away on products that not only don’t work, but that can actually be quite dangerous.
C4E: Describe your experience with Coursera. Did the experience impact your teaching style subsequently? Or did the experience change your thinking about teaching and learning? Or about the intro nutrition curriculum in particular?
KF: My experience with Coursera was unique as at UCSF we were one of the first institutions to sign on with them. Our school had an impressive budget to help create high quality HD video lecture and it was wonderful just getting to do my shortened lecture material and not have to worry about the technical side of things. I learned the importance of condensing topics into 5-10 minute chunked out lectures. But I have to say the online forums where students were free to comment on whatever they wanted to (course related or otherwise) were very overwhelming and downright disheartening. Even with a full time teaching assistant there was no way to sort through all of the comments, some of which were about asinine things such as my hair cut or various conspiracy theories in nutrition that had no basis in nutrition science, the very topic I was working so hard to elucidate.
C4E: What are some of the other projects you’re working on?
KF: I’m pregnant with quadruplets so I’m working on staying pregnant as long as possible and hoping to go 32 weeks, which is full term for quads. Professionally, I’m winding down a lot of teaching in preparation for kids numbers 2-5, but I still consult with traditional publishing companies to help bring existing titles online and to develop interactive materials for students using these products. It’s a very exciting time to be an author as publishers are scrambling to create innovative ways to retain students and instructors with online supplemental materials.
C4E: What do you think are the biggest challenges for students in your courses? What are the most important skills needed for them to master nutrition science?
KF: Many of my students struggle with basic math. I’m a nutrition teacher, not a math teacher, so I struggle with how to accommodate their learning needs without deviating too much from my assigned subject matter. In the first few weeks of any intro to nutrition course we need to work through calculations for interpreting the food label information and personal nutrient needs. I know a lot of students get lost at the beginning if they don’t have basic math skills, and I always struggle with how much math am I supposed to “reteach” them as a science teacher.
C4E: From your perspective, what unique advantages does an online webtext offer that a traditional textbook does not? How can these advantages enhance the curriculum both online and face-to-face classes?
KF: I am sure every educator thinks his or her subject matter is of great importance, but I am convinced that nutrition is still the most important topic for college students to learn about! You are dealing with a population who very often is making their own independent food choices for the first time in college, dealing with limited budgets and an overwhelming amount of misinformation about diet and health that they see online or get from misinformed friends.
Much of the introductory nutrition curriculum translates so well in the online environment. Unlike nursing where you have to learn how to insert an IV or dentistry where you need hands-on experience to conduct an examination, nutrition doesn’t involve any physical “touching” – therefore, a lot of our transfer of knowledge can be conducted with interactive online resources that actually translate better in the online vs. classroom-based environment.
C4E: Do you have a go-to cookbook?
KF: I love to cook but don’t consider myself a creative individual when it comes to the kitchen. I rely on recipes, but increasingly look to blogs for meal ideas, usually since I’m trying to incorporate ingredients I currently have in my refrigerator or cupboards so I don’t have to go to the store to make dinner tonight. One of my favorite food bloggers is Gaby Dalkin from What’s Gaby Cooking. Her recipes aren’t always health-focused, but they’re innovative and creative and I think she’s one of the most likable people in food and social media today.
C4E: Nutrition in the college curriculum? How has the Intro Nutrition course evolved as far as how it fits into the various curriculum and programs? Where do you see it going?
KF: Nutrition is already pretty well integrated into most undergraduate learning institutions. The area where we as a nation really lack nutrition education is in the primary care spectrum. More than 70 percent of physicians in this course have never taken a dedicated nutrition course and nutrition isn’t mandatory subject matter for med students. If you couple that with the fact that 2/3 of the country’s population is overweight or obese, and people usually go to their doctor for health information, there’s a very obvious gap in knowledge happening.
In fact, after a few days of any nutrition class I always remind my students – no matter what learning level they are at – that they currently know more about nutrition science than most practicing physicians.
A large focus of my education work has been centered on educating primary care practitioners (medical doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants) about nutrition. It’s one of the primary reasons why I wrote my first book “Diet Therapy in Advanced Practice Nursing” (McGraw Hill 2013) and I hope to one day see mandatory nutrition education as part of all medical education.
C4E: What myth about nutrition or dieting do you find yourself having to clarify to your students most often?
KF: A big one right now is about coconut oil. Students hear about its “magical properties” in the lay media and online or from misinformed friends or trainers, but once they learn that coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, and that saturated fats – even those from plant based sources like coconuts – aren’t necessarily “healthful” – they can put 2 and 2 together to realize they are being duped by food marketers.
C4E: What is the most important concept that you want your students to learn from Understanding Nutrition and Well-Being?
KF: It is my hope that this product will help students become more well-informed consumers. I want them to know they don’t have to buy special expensive foods or supplements to promote ideal health. Putting together a healthy meal plan does involve some knowledge and some preparation (healthy food doesn’t just magically appear!) – but it is always my hope by the end of the course that they have the toolset to make healthier food choices for themselves and their families.
Learn more about Understanding Nutrition and Well-Being and how to adopt it as the textbook for your face-to-face, hybrid, or online intro to sociology course.