Elizabeth Ward, Nutrition, '84

Elizabeth Ward received her B.S. in Nutrition from UMass Amherst in 1984 and her M.S. in Mass Communication from Boston University. A registered dietitian and nutrition consultant, Ms. Ward is also a freelance writer and the author of nine books on healthy eating, including most recently MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better, published by Loughlin Press. She contributes regularly to Men's Fitness, WebMD, and USA Today, and blogs at Expect the Best. She can be followed on Facebook at MyPlate for Moms and on Twitter at @MyPlate4Moms. Ms. Ward has been featured in nearly 1,000 print and broadcast interviews.

In her role as a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association Association now known as the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics) for nearly 10 years, Ms. Ward was featured in nearly 1,000 print and broadcast interviews. In addition to her recent appearance on The Dr. Oz Show, she has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, CNN, and ABC World News Tonight, and has been interviewed in The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and U.S. News & World Report, among other publications. She is the recipient of the 2011 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Media Excellence Award, and the 125 Alumni to Watch Award from the University of Massachusetts.

On February 10, 2012, Ms. Ward served as the moderator for a WebMD Town Hall event featuring First Lady Michelle Obama in celebration of the second anniversary of “Let’s Move.”

SPHHS Director of External Relations Patrick Freeman caught up with Ms. Ward when she returned to the UMass Amherst campus as an invited lecturer for the 24th Annual Virginia A. Beal Lecture and Dinner.

What kind of an impact did Professor Beal have on you as a student?

She blazed the trail for us in so many ways. She never told us as much, but we all knew her reputation. It was only after I graduated that I appreciated her for how she had advanced the profession, especially for women in the field. You just take that for granted when you are young and you already have those advantages. She was just way ahead of the curve. And of course she was revered. She was a living legend.

What are your fondest memories of being a student here?

The camaraderie! All the nutrition students in my class moved together through the program, which was nice. I really liked how everybody was so passionate and so enthusiastic about nutrition. Together I think we were a really great group.

Can you describe your professional career after leaving UMass, and how the Department of Nutrition helped you prepare for that career?

I started with a 12-month internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston after graduating from UMass. Certainly, my professors at UMass helped me to prepare for that internship and helped with the application process. You know, applying for an internship is similar to applying to graduate school. I remember it as being very involved.

After my internship, I started on my non-traditional path. I went to work for a company that did wellness and nutrition programs at the worksite and I also counseled patients at their medical practice. Later on, I worked for the Joslin Diabetes Clinic and the American Heart Association, and then worked about seven years at Harvard Community Health Plan, during which time I had three children. The entire time, I was writing and consulting as part of my own business. By the time my youngest one came along 14 years ago, I decided it was time to go out on my own.

It sounds like you did a lot of clinical work before moving into your current freelance writing career.

It was mostly ambulatory care work. It gave me a good basis to go out and talk to people and understand what they were thinking about and what they were facing in terms of medical issues, and what they might want to hear about when it came to nutrition. It served me really well.

And then you had your children…

I had three kids in four years! By the time the third one came along, the family’s schedule was too crazy for me to commit to a regular work schedule. So I started my consulting business. That was about 14 years ago. I write books, I write articles, I do public speaking, and I consult to food companies and commodity boards.

Do you have any advice for students today who are interested in pursuing a degree in Nutrition?

If you love nutrition and helping people, then go into the nutrition field. Always do what makes you happy! Many of my patients have told me that they had wanted to study nutrition in school, but went into a profession that they thought would be more “lucrative” like finance or marketing. And they were making money – probably more than I was – but they weren’t always happy.

Although I never really wanted to be a clinical dietitian, I loved nutrition and knew that I could make it work for me. My experience with patients as a clinical and outpatient dietitian was invaluable and helped me become a better writer and consultant.

While I’ve been writing for years, I have a hard time telling people that I’m a writer, because I really feel like I’m a dietitian first. I’ve been so lucky that I’ve been able to take dietetics and combine it with other interests, like writing and public speaking.

Speaking of public speaking – you recently moderated the WebMD Town Hall with First Lady Michelle Obama. Can you describe that experience?

Exhilirating. Exhausting. Scary. And I should probably add nerve-wracking. The First Lady was wonderful to work with, even though I was only with her for about an hour and a half. She was fabulous. It was such an honor to be chosen to moderate that panel and to be able to add my two cents’ worth too. I can’t tell you how many times I feel like I was just in the right place at the right time, and that was just one of those times.

[Read the transcript or watch the event in its entirety here.]

Clearly, childhood nutrition and nutrition for families are very near and dear to your heart. Can you describe some of the challenges that a mother might face? Do you have any tips or helpful hints that you could share?

You know, I feel funny giving advice. What works for me doesn’t necessarily work for every mom. One of the biggest challenges for any mom is finding what works for you as a family. Moms experience a lot of guilt. That’s why I wanted to put the word “better” in the title of my book (MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better). I think that really illustrates the way I look at the challenges mothers face. All you can do is try to do “better.” Better as it is for you, not for your neighbor or whomever. Because we’re not competing with each other – we’re doing what’s right for us and our families. That’s not always an easy thing to keep in mind. That’s the challenge, I think. Educate yourself. Don’t overdo it. Just figure out what will work for you.

Your talk tonight is about how technology can help families, correct?

That’s part of it. I’m going to be talking about what the most important messages to deliver to families are, and then how to meet them where they are, and why mom is such an important target no matter what medium we use. Those are the major themes.

Are there ways that technology itself helps?

Absolutely. You know, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest – that pretty much says it all.

So it’s really social media in particular then?

It’s social media mostly. But of course TV is very powerful. Radio is still very powerful. Magazines are now in print and on the Internet, and so are newspapers. They all have an Internet-component now. If you miss it on the six o’clock news, you can go watch it online, on YouTube. The traditional media, the social media, there are all these different avenues to get your message out.

Is the idea then the way we can use social media and other media to reinforce positive messages about nutrition?

Exactly. It’s interesting. When I first started writing, I was writing 1200-, 1600-, 2000-word pieces for let’s say, Cooking Light. Now I spend a lot of my time trying to fit quick snippets of information into 140 characters for Twitter. Things have really changed. People’s attention is divided. I don’t think attention spans are any shorter, I just think there’s so much more to see and be aware of. And so you have to come at consumers with really positive, useful nutrition information in a way that they can easily use.

We’re in the middle of an epidemic with childhood obesity. Is there anything you’d recommend, either for individuals or for what we as a society could do to try to prevent and manage it?

I think healthy habits start at home. I always say to parents, “While we’re waiting for the rest of the world to change” – as if McDonald’s will ever go away, or soda will ever go away – “but while you’re waiting for things to get better out there you need to look at your own environment at home and work on what’s going on there.” You start at home and then work your way outward. I think it’s important to stop blaming the schools for the school lunch that you think is not so good and stop blaming the soda companies because they make soda. Make sure your family knows that you value healthy eating and regular physical activity. That will make it easier for your kids to make better choices when they aren’t with you.

Do you have any closing thoughts? Is there anything else you’d like to add about the field?

Our field is at a really exciting juncture, where we can use technology and the Internet to get our messages out there and be the leaders in nutrition and health. There’s a lot of quackery in the media, and in social media. Our positive messages about healthy eating will win out in the end. Dietitians can be involved in ways that maybe 10 or 20 years ago we wouldn’t have been able to. I think it’s important to get nutrition messages in wherever you can, because people are really, really, interested in eating right.

Thank you very much for your time.

You’re very welcome.

Would you like to have your alumni profile appear here, in our newsletter, and other SPHHS publications? Please email Patrick Freeman.