Where Nutrition Intersects with Social Justice
Dr. Julie Metos didn’t start out trying to change the world. She left her home in Minnesota to major in ballet at the University of Utah. But she discovered she was equally passionate about health and nutrition, and ended up with a double major in dance and nutrition.
Stepping out of the spotlight as a ballet dancer, Dr. Metos continued her education at UC Berkley, where she earned a Master of Public Health degree and became a registered dietician nutritionist. She returned to the U and completed her PhD, centering her research on adolescent obesity. “In my career I have focused on the epidemic of childhood obesity and also the relatively new concept that when you are food insecure you are more likely to be overweight or obese. My interests were more in working with low income folks, where nutrition intersects with social justice,” she says. “I basically try to figure out ways that we can do early prevention for childhood obesity.”
In 2016 she founded the University of Utah Center for Community Nutrition. In addition to research, the center focuses on diabetes prevention efforts at middle schools in three states. Julie and her team customized curriculum for use with a documentary film. They trained teachers on the curriculum, helping them understand diabetes and the importance of physical activity. “Last year we reached 8,000 middle school students,” she says.
She created and implemented another program, “Food, Movement, and You” at transitional housing facilities for people experiencing homelessness. Student volunteers teach housing clients about proper nutrition and the importance of physical activity. “If you want people to be able to move forward they have to be at their best health,” Julie says. She says eating healthfully can impact mental health as well as physical health. So far, 500 people have gone through the program that teaches them how to make the best food choices using food subsidy programs. She says it’s not just about giving people something to eat. “I feel like we’re pulling them back if they’re not nourished.” Her research is informing other studies across the country. “As far as we know,” she says, “no one else is doing this kind of work.”
Even the medical profession is not immune to Julie’s efforts. She and a colleague created a class called Culinary Medicine. Now mandatory for all health science students, medical students also take the course. It’s taught by a physician and a registered dietician The class meets in the foods lab where students hear case studies about patients with various nutrition related diseases. They learn how to work with patients on specific diets and also how to cook foods appropriate for those diets. Julie says, “The hypothesis is if you teach doctors how to cook and about food, they’ll be better able to work with their patients.”
Right now, Julie admits all she can think about is her latest project, Teen Thrive. Working with high school students at four schools throughout Utah, she and her team are researching how technology can be used to improve nutrition education and awareness. “I love working with adolescents!” Julie says. “They’re figuring out what they want their lives and their health to be like.” Teen Thrive is behaviorally focused and tech savvy. She says the students are identifying barriers to eating healthfully, developing strategies for avoiding fast food, and discovering life hacks for eating right. Teen Thrive, along with the Julie’s other projects, is funded by the Larry H. Miller Foundation.
In 2018, Dr. Metos was recognized with the Bennion Center’s Distinguished Service Professor Award for her extensive community service. She donated her financial award to Utahns Against Hunger and Girls on the Run Utah.
The Distinguished Service Professor Award is funded through a generous gift from David and Susan Jabusch.