Nutrition course serves up fun, food facts

Low carbs, no carbs, good fats, bad fats – with so many conflicting messages in the media, it’s easy to get confused about what makes a healthy, balanced meal.

To dispel food fads and uncover the facts about nutrition, instructor Donna Louie teaches a nutrition class for students in the Libby Arts Residential Academic Program (RAP), Baker RAP, and Global Studies RAP at CU-Boulder.  

To actively engage students in the learning process, Louie arranges field trips and other activities outside of class. One such outing taught students the value of food. They prepared nutritious meals for a homeless community using produce donated to Boulder Food Rescue from local grocers and the Center for Community on campus.

Louie’s goal for the class is to help students understand how nutrition affects their health and performance. She stresses four characteristics of a healthful diet—an adequate amount of food to fuel the body, a balanced diet of all the food groups, a variety of nutrients and moderation of food intake.

“It’s a comprehensive course,” said Louie, “designed to inform students about their body, how it works, what nutrients it needs to perform well and stay healthy and what happens when they don’t eat right.”

The information she presents can be an eye-opener for many students. Take carbohydrates—Louie has found that students often have the misconception that all carbohydrates are bad and will cause them to gain weight.

Erica Bland, a freshman in vocal performance, learned that the body needs complex carbohydrates for energy and has changed her eating habits since taking Louie’s class.

“No-carb diets are a no-no,” said Bland, who now eats well-rounded meals that include whole grains and more vegetables and fruits.

Students learned about the nutritional value and taste nuances of quality chocolate at a chocolate tasting event featuring sustainably grown cacao. A trip to a local farmer’s market allowed them to talk with farmers, vendors, and customers about the benefits of eating locally grown and produced organic food. Brunch at Dushanbe Tea House in Boulder, an authentic Persian teahouse serving international cuisine, introduced them to the foods of other cultures. 

“The small  class size of the RAPs makes a difference in the way I teach,” said Louie. “It allows me to be creative and come up with field trips and hands-on activities, like making ricotta cheese and chocolate mousse in class to introduce the concept of protein denaturation. It’s fun for me and the students.”

Students had an opportunity to get their fasting blood metabolites measured and interpreted (including cholesterol, glucose, and hemoglobin) at the Wardenburg Health Center on campus, along with their blood pressure, heart rate, basal metabolic rate, and body mass index in class. In addition, they analyzed their diet for three days to see if it was healthy or not. Many of them reported that these assignments were wake-up calls to potential health problems and a motivator to make lifestyle changes.

They learned that a host of diseases that Americans develop can be traced back to a lifetime of poor dietary choices, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer.

To shed light on the love/hate relationship people sometimes have with food and their body, Louie brings in health professionals to speak to her class. A psychologist provides insight on eating disorders and body image, while a registered nurse presents the scientific breakdown of how chronic diseases develop by telling real-life stories.

“I’m a runner,” said Kaitlin Shepherd, a freshman considering a pre-medicine major, “so understanding how the food I put into my body affects my performance is very helpful. I learned that it’s important to maintain a healthy diet while young because it will affect you as you age.”

In addition to the science credit students receive for the course, it is Louie’s hope that the information she presents will help them live long and healthy lives.

“My promise to them,” said Louie, “is to provide information they can use for the rest of their life, share with their family and friends, and pass on to their children.”

RAPs provide undergraduates with a shared learning and living experience in a community setting. More than 50 percent of CU-Boulder’s entering freshmen in 2012 were involved in a RAP.

In a RAP, students can take selected courses in the hall, make friends who share their interests, participate in educational and social events, and develop their own ideas in a small group setting.