The new dietitian at the Callaway County Health Department doesn’t want Callawegians to focus on numbers.
Instead, Kristen Howard intends to encourage her clients to listen to their bodies and develop a healthier lifestyle, without obsessing over what the scale says or how many calories are in each meal.
“There’s so much joy we get from food that to just dwindle it down to its number of calories is taking a lot of joy out of life,” Howard said.
That’s not to say losing weight can’t be part of seeking a healthy life, especially if the weight is causing health problems such as joint pain or diabetes, Howard clarified. Her own interest in the field of dietetics started when she was a teenager and started grocery shopping for her family. What started as a fan activity turned into a serious interest as she learned more about healthy eating (Howard describes her diet up to that point as “typically American,” full of snack foods and sugary drink).
“My mom lost quite a bit of weight, and I was able to see how nutrition and exercise could have an immediate affect on your happiness,” Howard said.
Howard grew up in Columbia and attended Rockbridge before going on to Moberly Area Community College and then the University of Missouri, where she earned a masters of science in dietetics, graduating this May. As she studied and learned, Howard found many common assumptions about diet and weight loss aren’t true — and some are actively harmful.
“Being underweight is actually much more harmful than being overweight — there are no inherent health risks to being overweight,” she said.
In fact, some studies indicate being somewhat overweight (as defined by your body-mass index, itself a flawed concept, Howard said) can actually help people live longer and benefit people later in life.
“People will bring it up — they’ll say, ‘Oh, my BMI says I’m overweight,'” Howard said. “I’ll ask them, ‘Do you have diabetes, heart disease and kidney problems? Are you able to stay active?'”
BMI matters much less than overall health, she explained. When guiding someone in developing a healthier diet, instead of giving a daily calorie count, she’ll give suggestions like making sure half of your plate is filled with fruits and vegetables and choosing lean proteins and whole grains.
“But I’ll also tell you, if you want a donut, eat the donut,” she said. “I believe that restriction in your diet will ultimately lead to bingeing.”
She also mentioned the concept of intuitive eating, which at its simplest focuses on learning your body’s signals and eating the food your body needs when your body needs it.
“Moms teach their children to look for these cues — they’ll ask, ‘Are you hungry?'” Howard said. “Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we lose that skill. We’ll eat because we think it’s time to eat, or because we’re sad or bored.”
Howard noted many of her peers — newly graduated dietitians also entering the field — have a “body-positive” outlook. The change is sorely needed, she said.
“Dietitians have to look a certain way or people won’t listen to them,” she said. “Eating disorders are really prevalent in the field.”
At the CCHD, Howard is currently working with participants in the WIC Program, a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children. She consults with them on nutrition plans and can help intervene with nutritional guidance if a child isn’t meeting growth benchmarks.
On non-WIC days, Howard is helping the CCHD’s nurses conduct contact tracing and keep in contact with people who are in isolation, she said.
“Our poor nurses are swamped,” she said.
She’s also able to provide nutrition consultation to any Callaway County resident who’s interested, not just WIC clients. She can offer advice on things like how to manage health conditions with dietary changes or tailoring a nutrition plan. These consultations are free.
Once the COVID-19 crisis is in the rear-view mirror, Howard hopes to start teaching classes related to her field at the CCHD. Topics could include managing diabetes, cooking one-pot meals or child-friendly recipes for families — Howard has lots of ideas. It’ll cost a small fee to attend those classes, though Howard promised to feed attendees.
“It’s an incentive — I know there are a lot of hungry people in the community,” she said.
Howard can be reached via email at [email protected] or by calling 573-642-6881 and pressing 3.