Merced-area dietitians serve up information

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comMarch 14, 2012 

Good nutrition begins before birth.

What a pregnant woman eats will influence her baby for the rest of his life, said Sandra Erb, registered dietitian for the Merced County Community Action Agency's Women, Infants and Children Program, known as WIC. "What you eat (in the womb) affects you later on," she said.

Erb was among a group of registered dietitians who met at Mercy Medical Center on Wednesday, which was Registered Dietitian Day. March is National Nutrition Month, during which the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds people of the importance of having a healthy lifestyle, according to the academy.

The local dietitians, who work in various settings, talked about the importance of a good nutrition from an early age, misconceptions people have about food labels and terminology, the perceptions people have about the work dietitians do, and reasons why more women take interest in the field than men.

It's important to follow healthy eating habits at an early age, said Miriam Tcheng, director of nutritional services at Mercy. That makes it easier for people to eat healthy later in life, and prevents health problems, such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. But it's never too late to make changes. "Young or old, it's always important to think of ways to be healthy," she said.

However, the eating changes that people make need to be realistic, she said. "They need to be changes that will fit for you," she said.

The main focus should be eating fruits and vegetables, and staying active, she said.

Kennoris Bates, a registered dietitian with Golden Valley Health Centers, said dietitians often find people who misunderstand certain terms, such as "organic." "Organic doesn't always mean it's healthy," he said.

The work dietitians do is all science-based practice, which is what differentiates them from nutritionists. Dietitians work in settings that cover the entire human life cycle, said Michelle Pecchenino, a registered dietitian who teaches at Merced College.

Still, not many people understand their job. "No one knows what we do," said Alisa Van Foeken, clinical dietitian at Mercy. "They think we are cooks."

Terri Soares, director of the department of school nutrition services for the Merced City School District, said that decades ago, dietitian jobs opened doors for women with certain skills, as they weren't encouraged to become doctors or economists, among other career choices. Becoming a registered dietitian "was an opportunity for women to use their math and science in the '50s," she said. Out of the group of dietitians who met Wednesday, only one was a man.

The field continues to provide opportunities for those who are interested. "It's the path of the future -- we know that nutrition plays a key role in a person's health," Pecchenino said. "There's been a continued demand" for registered dietitians.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482, or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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