When I was 15 years old and just getting serious about playing sports, my dad gave me a yellow folder whose brads held pages and pages of nutrition information tables. Those photo-copied papers were my introduction to carbohydrates, proteins and fats – the macronutrients in food that give us energy and the building blocks for our bodies. My dad intended for me to fuel my body by appropriately applying the information, but I mostly ignored the folder until my freshman year in college. During that first year away from home, I was determined not to gain the dreaded “freshman 15” and used the nutrition information to identify foods that had little or no fat. I, like many other people, had bought the lie that eating fat makes you fat. I remember eating only boiled lima beans for lunch one day because they were a good source of protein that had no fat!
Although I wasn’t adequately prepared to use the valuable information contained in that yellow folder, that was the beginning of my nutrition journey. A journey that took a sharp turn about five years after college when I read The Maker’s Diet by Jordan Rubin. It was the first time I began to understand how the food that I put in my mouth affects everything that happens in my body from the moment I begin chewing. The book introduced me to the concept of favorable microorganisms growing in my intestine, the necessity of consuming fruits and vegetables, and the benefits of fasting. I finally began to understand how my diet (ie, the food that I eat) directly impacts my body… physically, emotionally, mentally. Wow! All that power in something we do multiple times every day, often without even thinking about it.
I began reading more nutrition-related books like The Fat Flush Plan by Ann Louise Gittleman, Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes by Monique Ryan, and the tome Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition by Paul Pitchford. I learned how to cook real food from scratch, continuously made small adjustments to my diet, and used all the information I could to fuel the endurance sports in which my husband and I participated. While the changes were not immediate (it took many years to go from eating mac and cheese out of a box to making it from a recipe), the care and feeding of myself changed drastically from my first triathlon to my second Ironman six years later. And the changes didn’t stop there.
Learning to love food:
When I was growing up, my amazing mom made home cooked meals almost every night. Raised in Kansas, she prepared foods that were common in the mid-west and of that time… canned vegetables (mainly corn and green beans since that’s all I would eat), potatoes, boxed mac and cheese, and beef from her father’s farm were common foods on our dinner table. We didn’t eat fish unless it was breaded sticks; breakfast was usually some sugar-laden cereal I had requested; snacks came out of a box or bag; and my mom chose not to fight with us over eating colored veggies. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly a culinary expert.
Fortunately, the universe had different plans for my taste buds. Due to a company project that would launch a new technology in Europe, my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I had the opportunity to live in Paris for 18 months. What an amazing experience… in all ways, but especially from a health and nutrition perspective! I learned how important daily walking is and that real, fresh, non-preserved food spoils within a few days. I learned that portion size is often more important than the contents of the portion. And I learned to try every new food I encountered… which was a lot of them during that time!
Since then we have lived in Dallas (again), Seattle, and New York City, and we have been lucky enough to travel extensively. I have come to realize that everywhere has its local foods and preparation methods, and I won’t always be able to get the foods that I grew up with. (Perhaps a version of it will be available, but not what I’m used to. For example, how many places in the world have real Tex-Mex?) Together my husband and I became willing to always at least try the beloved local foods and dishes. In fact, we make it a point to “eat like the locals” whenever possible… whether it is ackee and saltfish in Jamaica, baby goat intestine in Buenos Aires, raw sea urchin straight from the sea in Gallipoli, or Dungeness crab in Seattle. I wouldn’t say I always fall in love on the first bite, but I rarely hate it and often am pleasantly surprised by a wonderful new taste experience!
Becoming a dietitian / nutritionist:
Food and nutrition had become important parts of my life… for health and pleasure. But they were still hobbies, so to speak. That is until January 2010 when the telecommunications company I worked for as a Six Sigma black belt filed for bankruptcy and each division was being sold to the highest bidder. Uncertain of my future in telecommunications and unsure that I wanted it even if it existed, I decided to pursue a formal education in the only thing in which I had been interested for as long as I could remember: nutrition. After all, when I say that “I love food”, I don’t mean that I love eating… I mean that I love everything about food. I love cooking it and sharing it with others. I love the enjoyment it brings physically, emotionally, and mentally. I love the indulgence of food, whether it’s a buttery scallop or a buttery croissant or something else not related to butter at all! I love knowing what happens to it in the body and how I can improve my body through food alone. (After all, you can’t exercise or supplement your way out of a bad diet!) With all of that love, how could I not decide to spend the rest of my professional life using it to improve the health and well-being of, well, everyone?
Because I had earned my bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics, the amount of time it would take me to earn all of the necessary college credits felt a bit daunting. Fortunately, my company division was bought and I worked as a senior manager of strategic projects during the day and went to college at night and on weekends for the next 3 years. After earning all of the credits I needed to be eligible for and accepted into the dietetic internship, I finally said good-bye to my first career and completed the rest of the requirements to be a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Nutrition… officially allowing me to sign Stephanie Dunne, MS, RD. (Woohoo! I have letters after my name! Ha!)
Now, I continue to tweak my own diet and study more about how nutrition impacts each of us based on our individual physiology/biochemistry/genetics. It’s a relatively new approach known as “integrative and functional medical nutrition therapy” and it is so fascinating! Of course, I still love food for the enjoyment that it brings. And I am so excited that I get to use my my ever-expanding knowledge, experience and enthusiasm about food to help others be healthy and vibrant and enjoy the life they want.
Here’s to eating well and eating good!