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A Mediterranean Inspired Q&A

February 21, 2012

Having been longtime advocates for the Mediterranean Diet, we love to hear how everyday people are involved in educating others about the benefits of this healthy lifestyle.  So when we heard that Melissa Olfert, an Assistant Professor of Human Nutrition and Foods at West Virginia University, was starting a new 2012 course focused on Mediterranean food, culture and health, we couldn’t wait to speak with her and ask her a few questions. We found out that her students are in for an exciting 16 week course filled with wonderful nutritional and cultural learning and a 10-day trip to the Mediterranean.  And the best part? Their visit to the Mediterranean takes place in May, which just so happens to be National Mediterranean Diet Month!

OLDWAYS:  How did you personally get interested in the Mediterranean diet?
MELISSA:  I have been interested in health and nutrition most of my life.  In my doctoral studies at Loma Linda University I took as many electives in nutrition as I could.  After I earned my DrPH in Preventive Care of Chronic Disease I realized I had enough credits to take the dietetic internship and sit for the national exam for Registered Dietitians.  I find when talking with clients, patients and professional colleagues many of them love to know more about the foods of the Mediterranean region and how they are prepared.

OLDWAYS:  What are some of the reasons this area of study appeals to your students?
MELISSA:  My students are interested in the science behind nutrients and the phytonutrients as well the lifestyle of individuals and how that can affect health.  The USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans reviewed the science behind the Med diet and much of the recommendations to increase essential fatty acids, increase fiber and decrease animal foods come from this science so I felt it was very pertinent to their studies.

OLDWAYS:  What are some of the biggest misconceptions/misunderstandings about food, health and nutrition that you see among students?
MELISSA:  Students know very little about food, how to grow or shop for it, how to prepare it and mostly how to savor and enjoy it.  I think understanding why we should eat the rainbow, from a health perspective, is essential to help us want to eat more of a variety of foods.  In the current generation of students I see culinary skills falling by the wayside.  We need to help students not only understand the nutrients in food but also learn how to prepare it and how to make a balanced, healthful meal.

OLDWAYS:  Do you think this course has the potential to truly change the way the students think about what they eat? How?
MELISSA:  Yes, we will spend 16 weeks learning about food, health and culture and how they intersect.  The Mediterranean is the perfect example of this; much of the culture is centered around food.  I want to open that up to the students so that they understand that food is more than just calories, that it has a social and cultural purpose.  These students are already interested in nutrition and are on the pathway to becoming nutrition experts. My goal is to have this class provide them with meaning and purpose from a cultural view.

OLDWAYS:  In college and university settings it’s often difficult for kids to eat well or even cook for themselves. Will you suggest to the students some ways they can change their own eating behavior on campus? If so, what are they?
MELISSA:  Absolutely, I always talk food in my classes.  Even in my graduate classes I challenge students to try to be more adventurous, to try new foods, and to prepare foods in different ways.  My teaching often goes from discussion to action – students might leave my class after a lively discussion and end up back home to try what I just explained or described.  It isn’t unusual for me to challenge them to have accomplished a new behavior or two before I see them again at the next class.

OLDWAYS:  One of the appealing aspects of the Mediterranean diet is its affordability; the diet is based largely on the foods that were traditionally eaten by working people. Does you plan to include this message, too?
MELISSA:  I love the message of “eat clean and simple!”  Food needs to be beautiful in color, texture and taste yet often people think this idea has to be expensive.  I spend a lot of time breaking down this notion and talking about Intuitive Eating, also know as intentional eating, which is part of the “Slow Food” movement that is very popular in the Mediterranean region.  The idea is to slow down and take time to enjoy being together, gathering, preparing and consuming beautiful food.  Simple, inexpensive ingredients are a key part of this healthy lifestyle.  To further support this notion, we will have at least one class with a hands-on cooking demonstration, and we are also planning an evening meal in Italy with a chef who creates this positive environment and includes everyone so they understand, first-hand what this truly means.

OLDWAYS:  Has it been easy for you to get this course going? Where does it fit in the curriculum? And do you have any pointers for other nutrition teachers who might want to get a similar program going on their campus?
MELISSA:  Today, there is a strong emphasis for students to gain global travel experience and that is one of my main reasons for starting this course.  Many students I meet have never left the state or region, so the idea of going overseas may seem a bit daunting and uncomfortable.  By developing the curriculum to allow for 16 weeks of learning prior to our actual travel we have the opportunity to become a strong team, and this bond will become stronger as we travel abroad together.  I intend on having this model be an example for other similar programs here at WVU.  My best advice for other nutrition teachers is to identify what you enjoy and see how you can creatively bring that passion into your classroom. Then think about how you can incorporate active learning or submersion learning by taking students into the field.  I am sure as I continue to develop this further I may have some true ‘lessons learned’ to share in great detail… and I can’t wait!

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