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Dietitians address sociocultural aspects of eating

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun

As part of her first job as a registered dietitian, Jackie Allen had to learn how to smoke meat over an open fire. She had been sent by her employers, the Morning Sky Health and Wellness Centre at the Frog Lake First Nation reserve in Alberta, to a cultural awareness conference to learn about traditional native cuisine.
"I love learning about different cultures ... and eating habits," says dietitian Jackie Allen.

"It was interesting because I was learning alongside young native people who also didn't know how to make those foods," Allen explains. "Fast food is still pretty popular with the younger generation. And I realized that, in many ways, the old way of eating was healthier, because it included more fruits and vegetables and wild meat, which are low in fat."

On the reserve, it was Allen's job to give dietary advice to people suffering from conditions including diabetes, heart disease or obesity. She organized prenatal nutrition classes and baby food-making workshops, and she helped manage the health centre's cafeteria, teaching food safety and helping plan balanced menus.

Today, the 26-year old works for the Lifestyle Metabolism Centre (, a private medical clinic in Toronto, that offers six-month programs of diet and physical fitness for people who are clinically overweight, or those who suffer from diabetes or high cholesterol. She also does clinical research on new drugs to treat these problems.

There are many different types of jobs available to registered dietitians, says professor Jennifer Welsh, director of the School of Nutrition at Ryerson.

"Sure, dietitians work one-on-one with patients. But they may also work in the food industry, in hospitals, in community centres, public health, catering or long-term care," she explains.

It takes four years of full time study plus one year of practicum to become a dietitian. Courses include biochemistry, microbiology, metabolism studies, and physiology.
Working as a dietitian
Salary: $20 an hour and up
Education: Four-year accredited course (BASc in food and nutrition) plus one-year practicum.
Characteristics: Capable in biological and social sciences with strong people and communications skills
More information: Visit or

But students also learn marketing and communications skills, and how to work with people from different cultures, in courses that focus on the sociocultural aspects of food.

"To be a dietitian, you have to be interested in both the biological and social sciences," Welsh explains. "You need to be able to understand the complexity of nutrient interactions and nutrient and drug interactions. You also need to understand how to communicate with people and to understand the complexity of people's lives."

Jackie Allen, who gradated from the University of Guelph in 1999, enjoys her job for various reasons. "I love learning about different cultures, lifestyles and eating habits," she says. "I enjoy building a rapport with my clients and learning about the foods they eat, so that I can design a diet that they'll enjoy and that will help them."

But then there's the satisfaction of seeing her work make a difference in people's lives.

"Just the other night, I saw someone whose blood pressure was very high," Allen says. "They couldn't understand why, as they hadn't had chocolate or sugar all day."

Later, she discovered that the patient had drank a large amount of orange juice in the morning, which can boost blood sugar significantly. She told them that orange juice is OK -- but only half a cup a day.

"It's so nice when you can point out these simple things to people and know it can make a big difference to their health."

(Susan Poizner ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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