Dietetics grad makes healthy plates for a healthy state

by J. Besl  |   

Seth Anderson

One of the first graduates of the dietetics program, Seth Anderson '14 is now a dietitian at Southcentral Foundation. (Photo by Ted Kincaid / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Seth Anderson is not the food police.

As a dietitian, he says, people often misunderstand the job, assuming he's there to ruin the joy of cooking through rigid rules and restrictions.

"Well, if you want me to, I can be that for you," he said with a laugh. "But I'm mostly here to be a nutrition expert and guide you on what you'd like to be."

Want to eat healthier? Talk to a dietitian, he says. Need nutritional advice to manage a medical condition? That's a dietitian too. Looking to improve your athletic performance? Yep, find a dietitian.

Seth works for Southcentral Foundation as part of an integrated team of physicians, nurses, pharmacists and behavioral health consultants. His primary care team is like a superhero squad of health professionals, each bringing their unique skills to assist their shared patients. Seth, thanks to his UAA degree in dietetics, wields the power of nutritional health.

As a UA Scholars recipients, Seth arrived at UAA unsure of his next steps. "Going in, I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but I always knew I wanted to help people," he said. He switched his major several times, partially because his program didn't exist... yet. UAA's dietetics degree earned accreditation midway through his first year on campus, and he was among the first students to enroll in the new major that fall.

Dietetics frames nutrition in a clinical setting, and UAA's program includes both focused sciences (biochemistry, microbiology) with program-specific topics (Alaska Native nutrition, world food patterns). Seth earned his degree in 2014 and immediately followed up with a UAA graduate certificate in dietetics, which required an eight-month internship split among clinical, food service, and community settings. Seth spent half that time in Kodiak, where he worked in outpatient care with Kodiak Area Native Association and assisted the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program at the city hospital.

His broad experience in Kodiak helped him land his current gig at Southcentral Foundation, where he provides outpatient counseling and education, with a side of health outreach. Many patients schedule appointments ahead of time. Then again, as part of a health team, he may be called in to see a patient on the spot. Each day is different, but every one includes personal connections.

Initially, Seth gets to know the patient to see how their lifestyle affects their diet. What are your go-to snacks? How often do you cook at home? How much water do you drink in a day? The conversation is responsive, with Seth changing questions and suggestions as more information emerges. He shifts towards helpful suggestions, not demands, as he gets to know his patients. Did you know a lack of iron can make you feel fatigued? How do you feel about adding more vitamin C?

At Southcentral, Seth also has to consider cultural components. His patients are mainly Anchorage residents with Athabascan and Inupiaq roots.

"We definitely have to have some working knowledge of what foods are regionally specific," he said of the setting. "There are a couple of foods I look out for and talk about more, because it connects with culture and health. If the two are working together, hand in hand, I definitely encourage consuming more of those items."

That balance is something he learned in part at UAA, where the program, he said, is "centered to Alaska." Due to a short growing season and a small and scattered population, dietetics in Alaska is like nowhere else in the country. "[UAA] definitely prepares future dietitians who would like to stay here," he said.

Food access and food affordability are real issues in the North. In fact, many Alaskans pay twice as much for groceries than the national average. That can turn fresh fruits and vegetables into an unreliable luxury in some peoples' eyes.

It also provides a launching point for Seth's outreach and education.

"It's common [to hear], 'I can't afford fresh produce,'" he said. "Well, it doesn't have to be fresh. There are definitely other areas we could look into that would be more affordable and would still be nutritious." For example, frozen and canned produce maintain most of the nutritional value.

"A little light bulb goes off in most of my clients. 'Okay, I can do that,'" he said.

These personal conversations and connections are a key part of dietetics, and a big draw of the job for Seth. Whether he's helping someone plan a grocery list for fish camp or recommending nutrients to alleviate their hypertension, he's actively engaged in helping his patient's live a better, healthier life.

Seth is not the food police. As a dietitian, he's a professional guide through the wide world of nutrition.

Please, enjoy your summer barbecues and salmon bakes. And please do so, of course, in moderation.

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