Iowa State dietetic interns to work virtually with low-income families to improve nutrition

Jean Anderson

Jean Anderson shows the app that interns will use to coach clients on diet and nutrition. (Larger image) Photo by Christopher Gannon

AMES, Iowa – A group of Iowa State University dietetic interns will provide nutrition coaching and wellness information to low-income families as part of a national health initiative.

Unlike programs in a more traditional setting, such as a school or hospital, Iowa State’s program enables its interns to connect virtually with their clients. The initiative is led by the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) and One Medical Group. Interns will use One Medical’s nutrition coaching smartphone app called Rise. With the popularity of health and wellness apps, Jean Anderson, director of Iowa State’s dietetic internship program, says it makes sense to have interns using the technology. 

“It’s a very contemporary way to provide health care. By connecting with people on their phone, you’re reaching them in a way that is simple and convenient,” Anderson said. “It’s also a great opportunity for the interns to use the technology to build their motivational interviewing and coaching skills through the continued promotion of healthy eating and healthy lifestyles.”

One Medical will recruit people to enroll in the program for free. The goal is to serve 500 clients – primarily parents who can share what they learn with their children – over the next 18 months. Students or “coaches” will spend about five minutes a day interacting with each client, helping them identify wellness goals, focusing specifically on healthy eating and diet. Clients will send pictures of their meals for coaches to review and pinpoint problem areas. Ruth MacDonald, professor and chair of food science and human nutrition, says it’s important to provide this type of outreach to low-income families.  

“Typically, this is a target audience that dietitians work with more on the clinical side and not so much on the preventive side. This takes the approach to prevent chronic diseases by helping people modify their lifestyle behaviors and diet so that they stay healthy and out of the clinic,” MacDonald said.

ISU students will spend the next three months training with One Medical before they start working with clients in September. The coaching the interns provide will be in addition to 1,200 hours of supervised practice interns must complete during the 26-week program. Interns will be paired with a registered dietitian provided by One Medical who will serve as a mentor.

PHA and One Medical announced the partnership with Iowa State’s dietetic internship program in May at the 2016 Building a Healthier Future Summit in Washington, D.C. Susan Roberts, an Iowa State alumna and director of strategic initiatives for PHA, made the initial connection that led to the collaboration.

Reliable, factual information

Rise App Screenshot

The app allows interns to provide nutrition advice at a time and place that's convenient for their clients. (Larger imagePhoto courtesy of One Medical

There is an abundance of health and nutritional information available online and through various apps, not all of which is beneficial. The fact that registered dietitians will serve as mentors for the interns and oversee nutrition counseling was a big selling point for Anderson and MacDonald.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and misleading recommendations that really don’t promote health and could actually do some serious damage to your health,” MacDonald said. “We want to put people on the path to live a healthy lifestyle based on scientific evidence, rather than the latest fad. You don’t have to eliminate certain foods or do juice cleanses to be healthy.”

Registered dietitians have an understanding of physiology, biochemistry and chronic disease that many health coaches and nutrition counselors cannot provide. This expertise is important if clients have pre-existing health conditions that need to be considered, Anderson said. It also helps them avoid the pitfalls of fad diets or health trends that can be costly.

“We want to show families that they can live a healthy lifestyle on a budget,” Anderson said. “The hope is that clients will see improvements in their health and have the tools to maintain these changes. In return, our students gain confidence building their skills, which will help them be successful in their future careers.”