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In 2016, Kara McIver, MS, RDN, found herself laden with stress. She was working long hours at her public relations job, constantly connected to a computer. In the free time that she did have, she was participating in CrossFit and started seeing a dietitian to inspire her exercise and nutrition habits. Little did she know, she would inspire a new career as well.

McIver, now the nutrition programs coordinator at Colorado State University, and founder of her private practice, The Judy Project, helps young to middle-aged adults with allergies, nutrition education and chronic disease prevention. Inspired to give advice to clients better than what her grandmother received, she believes everyone can reduce their risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, arthritis and dementia, even with a family history.

With a mission to further nutrition education and chronic disease prevention, McIver empowers adults to take control of their health and defy their genetic predispositions. Her story is one of transformation, dedication and the profound impact of informed choices. Below is the full interview.

Q. Describe your role.

A. My primary full-time day job is nutrition program coordination for CSU residential dining, which has two prongs. The first prong is ensuring students who have dietary allergies or restrictions are able to find safe food options. First-year students must live on campus and have a meal plan. It’s our duty to feed those students with allergies. That means that I consult with our executive chef on our menus, which makes sure we are offering allergy friendly meals. I source back-of-house and make sure retail projects are allergy friendly. I train food service employees for allergies and safe service in regard to preventing cross contamination of allergens. Students can then find those foods that work for them. Many of them may be managing their own food allergies for the first time. Maybe previously, their families did that for them. The second prong is nutrition education for all of our students who live on campus. At the end of their first year, they move on to live on their own, in an apartment setting or in a house setting. They’re shopping and cooking and making all the meal decisions. So I teach them general healthy eating, how to cook, how to shop, all of those sorts of things. I teach Introduction to Sports Nutrition for undergrads here. I will also be precepting my first dietetic intern.

The Judy Project is my part-time private practice named after my grandmother, Judy, who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. She wasn’t educated on how to manage her diabetes in a sustainable way. She was told, “Don’t eat anything white, and if you do, you’re bad.” It’s challenging to live with diabetes, and that created a challenging food relationship for her. She never got any advice on how to prevent chronic diseases. When I decided I wanted to become a dietitian and wanted to do coaching, it was a project for me to improve nutrition education for others. It’s the mentality that it’s an ongoing project that I will be working to improve and a lifelong project clients take on to reduce the risk of chronic disease. I take on a few clients here and there for some performance coaching and general wellness oversight, and a little bit of medical nutrition therapy for my clients managing medications like Ozempic and those sorts of things. I’ve also started to create YouTube videos.

Q. Why did you want to work in dietetics?

A. I noticed this lack of nutrition education in my life around chronic disease prevention. I was working in Washington, D.C., and I was no longer a high school or college athlete. I had been a swimmer through high school and I competed in club triathlon in undergrad. I didn’t know how to keep myself from engaging in less-than-ideal behaviors. I didn’t eat a green vegetable until I was 25 years old. I hardly ate vegetables at all. I ate a ton of candy, drank too much alcohol and didn’t know how to fuel my body properly for exercise or recovery. 

I was also hating my PR job. I was creating content that lived on the computer and went away seemingly within seconds. I wasn’t creating anything that was lasting. At the same time, while doing CrossFit, I didn’t understand why I could be doing all this exercise, but my body didn’t reflect it. I went to see a dietitian and her lifestyle looked really attractive to me. She ran a private practice and worked as much as she wanted. She was also a yoga instructor and had flexibility in her life. We came up with a nutrition plan with meal plans and recipes. What sparked my interest was it was something tangible while being able to help someone and being on your own schedule. When I left my PR job, it was because I knew I wanted to do something else. The dietitian showed me a path that I hadn’t seen before in any capacity. Combined with the chronic disease prevention piece, it really called my name.

Q. How did you get your jobs?

A. For my position at CSU, I completed my dietetic internship food service rotation in this office with the dietitian who used to be in my role. I was finishing my internship, and she was finishing her Ph.D. When she became a full-time professor, her residential dining position opened up. I enjoyed the internship, and that RD told the hiring folks that I had the personality to work in food service. It was kind of good timing. I was in the right place at the right time, and I enjoy working with young adults. Students are making their nutrition choices for the first time. I can help change their health trajectory their freshman year of college, and not in their late 20s or early 30s like when I did.

To launch my private practice, my CrossFit coach referred me to my first client while I was in grad school. I was at home a lot during that time. I felt like I could take on that client, and things grew from there. I didn’t want to apply to any W-2 jobs. I knew I always wanted a private practice. Through word of mouth and others in that CrossFit gym, it just kind of grew. Before I took on this full-time role, I had a lot of clients. I can only take on so many now, but I do keep a couple.

Q. What do you like about them?

A. One of the great things at CSU is being the subject matter expert on a team of other experts. In this institution, I am the only dietitian in housing and dining. It’s nice to be the authority in certain things. If you’re the type of person that enjoys food service, maybe you have some past work in a restaurant or bar, you might enjoy food service dietetics. It’s seasonal in that I’m still working all summer, but it’s not as high demand during the summer. It’s also repetitive; every year there’s certain things that happen. All students move in and leave. There are final exams. There are midterms. When it comes to programming and thinking about students’ availability, you have a lot of insight into what their day-to-day looks like, having to meet them where they are.

Working in private practice, I get to use a lot of those communication skills from my past career. I’m always finding new ways to communicate with my clients. Every dietitian may teach the importance of fruits and vegetables. The way you communicate that is where the creativity comes in. In private practice, I’m the only person, so I get to make all the creative decisions. That can be the most work, but that can also be the most fun.

Q. What has been the biggest challenge for you as a dietitian working in the industry?

A. The biggest challenge certainly is having my message compete with less educated, less qualified voices. I make content for the internet, and the internet does not always highly value academic degrees, especially when it comes to food and nutrition. The internet prioritizes aesthetics. Many dietitians feel like their body is their resume. A lot of people claiming to be nutritionists may try to sell people supplements or meal plans that may not be appropriate, but people buy it because the influencer looks how they want to look. Competing with that as a dietitian is the hardest piece.

Q. What is one thing you wish you had known before starting your career in dietetics?

A. One thing I wish I had known as a student was how much I would actually enjoy a clinical position. During my internship, I did my clinical rotation thinking that clinical was all about acute care, somebody’s sick right now, and I was interested in chronic disease prevention. I thought I would not enjoy the role at all. I actually really enjoyed it and ended up applying to clinical roles. When I was a student, I never would’ve ever even considered it. So because of that, I always tell students, don’t rule out clinical dietetics because it seems the hardest. Or because it seems… anything. It is a cool type of dietitian role to be in. I don’t know if I would have ended up in a clinical role full time, but as a student it wasn’t something I considered at all.

Q. Has there been anything specific that helped you move forward in your career?

A. What’s helped me move forward is being really clear about what I don’t want to do so that I can see the things that I do want to do. There are so many different paths for dietitians and for nutrition students that sometimes it feels like you have to take every single opportunity that you’re offered. You want to be competitive, and you’re interested in a lot of different things, so you end up saying yes to so many things that you can’t be great at any of them. A lot of those paths are just not for you, and being able to say no to them has allowed me to focus and move forward on the path that I actually want to be on.

For example, I got the opportunity through a grant to become a lactation specialist. I could’ve gotten this certification for free, and it would cost a lot without a grant. I really considered it, because it was out there and available to me. But I have no interest in working with maternal or child nutrition, any of the areas that would benefit. It was free and attractive, but saying no allowed me to take a course on something else, take on another client or do something else that was of more interest because I wasn’t spending the time. It helps me be a better practitioner for my clients because I am more aligned with what they want to do.

Q. What program or initiative are you most proud of?

A. The initiative that I’m most proud of is Eat Well programming at CSU. It’s the nutrition education side of my CSU role which entails hands-on programs for students and also encompasses all of our daily menus. I choose an “RD pick of the day” so students can see the healthy options we serve in residential dining, which some people think is just fried foods and pizza. Retail also has an “RD combo of the month.” I pair items that unexpectedly make a MyPlate-style meal or snack they can get with a meal swipe, while incorporating the items students actually like. Think a mac and cheese cup, edamame and veggies with dip. There are many healthy options available here on campus including healthy combos in our retail that students can get at a discount, and they’re in turn exposed to packaged goods that are actually good for them.

Q. Have any “hot topics” in the dietetics/nutrition industry impacted the way you do things?

A. I do work with a couple clients who are on weight loss medications. As a dietitian, my perspective is I am medication neutral: It’s the right answer for some people, and not others.

The other topic is the packaged and processed food conversation. We have retail here, and there are a range of foods in the retail setting that are more or less healthy. The same thing is not healthy for every person, and I especially see that in campus dining. A lot of students don’t have time for breakfast. I would much rather they grab a frozen burrito or protein shake instead of eating nothing. They have messages on the internet telling them all processed or packaged foods are terrible for their health or the worst choice they can make, but that’s not necessarily true. There are a lot of processed and packaged foods that are very healthy and support the nutritional needs of young adults and active people.

I also work with a lot of athletes that are underfueling. They’re hearing from the internet that they have to eat only whole, unprocessed foods. Whereas I think they would often be best served by something pre-made, something that can increase their calories, carbohydrates, all these things. There’s all these voices on the internet — that are not expert voices — giving blanket statements that processed foods are bad. That’s just not accurate.

Bio:

Kara McIver, MS, RDN, received her bachelor’s degree in public relations and rhetorical advocacy from Purdue University and her master’s degree in human nutrition from Colorado State University. She completed her dietetic internship also at CSU. As a graduate student, McIver studied lipedema and the link between estrogen signaling and dysfunctional adipose tissue, was a teaching assistant for the culinary lab, worked in hospital food service and coached CrossFit. Prior to graduate school, she worked on digital public affairs campaigns in Washington, D.C. Originally from Crown Point, Indiana, she currently resides in Fort Collins, Colorado, with her partner and two dogs. She now eats vegetables daily.

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