Dietetics and Dietitians: At the Intersection of Food and Medicine

Dr. Jonathan Scott, assistant professor of Military and Emergency Medicine at the Uniformed Services University, discusses the benefits of dietetics and nutrition.

A group of people in military uniforms and a person in civilian clothing are preparing food in a kitchen setup with portable burners, pots, and cooking ingredients spread on a round table.
Dr. Jonathan Scott (center) going over a recipe with a group of students during the USU Culinary Lab. The
small dining room at USU is used for this experiential opportunity. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonathan Scott)

January 11, 2023 by Vivian Mason

Nutrition is more important than ever. Just about everyone has a connection with food. It’s a fundamental need. But, there’s a science to food that can help people.

A man in business casual attire, with a tie and glasses, is standing and speaking in front of a classroom with seated students, some of whom are taking notes. The environment suggests an educational or lecture setting.
Presentation with the 2023 Science,
Service, Mentoring, and Medicine (S2M2)
High School Summer Externship Cohort.
The Culinary Lab did a session called
“Rethink your Drink.” (Photo courtesy of
Dr. Jonathan Scott)
“Nutrition is an area in which a Registered Dietitian (RD)—a credentialed nutrition professional—can intervene, help people improve their lives, and help them feel better and live longer while encouraging them to make informed food choices,” notes Dr. Jonathan Scott, assistant professor in the Uniformed Services University's Department of Military and Emergency Medicine

Dietetics is the science of how food and nutrition affect human health and well-being. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines dietetics as “the integration, application, and communication of practice principles derived from food, nutrition, social, business, and basic sciences to achieve and maintain optimal nutrition status of individuals and groups.” 

Scott explains that dietetics includes how we can fuel the body from not only a food standpoint, but also from a hydration standpoint. “What people put into their bodies ultimately contributes to living healthy, balanced, and successful lives.”

The importance of dietetics was recognized by the military during World War II. Today, there active duty, civilian, and contract dietitians supporting the U.S. military around the world. The public’s interest in food and nutrition grows every day because of the potential of basic foods to prevent and treat a variety of diet-related conditions. 

Emphasis today is on healthy eating, and people are seeking out RDs beyond those in a clinical or hospital setting. RDs can provide education and personalize recommendations that affect overall health through informed and culturally relevant dietary choices.

Scott notes that his interest in the profession crept in at a young age. “Rather than watching cartoons, I remember watching Saturday morning cooking shows, and I always loved going to the grocery store with my mom.” Even his sixth-grade home economics teacher made an impression on him because in that class he learned about the science behind nutrition: why certain foods get put together, what happens when they’re undermixed or overmixed, what happens when too much baking powder is added to a recipe, etc. “That class further cemented my interest in food,” Scott says. 

“I may not have been the best student at ironing a shirt, sewing on buttons, or balancing a checkbook,” he admits. “But with cooking, it came naturally, and I loved it!” After taking two electives focusing on cooking and nutrition in high school, Scott thought maybe culinary school was in his future. But that changed. 

In college (undergrad), he studied food, nutrition, and dietetics. As an RD and while completing his Ph.D. at Ohio State, he (and a small group of undergraduate student volunteers) worked with ten varsity sports teams. 

“It was a lot of fun being able to interact with athletes on that level,” Scott says. “I loved helping them think about what they were eating, how they were recovering, and how they were approaching their daily life challenges such as being responsible for preparing their own meals, shopping for groceries, etc., while also competing as student athletes.”

As an assistant professor at USU, there are nutrition-focused lectures in the School of Medicine during the gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal modules that he currently teaches. 

One example includes a hands-on practicum with third-year medical students. Here, students have the opportunity to choose between one of several programming options during the Integrative Medicine Day as part of Bench to Bedside and Beyond (B3), one of which is the Culinary Lab. It’s been loosely modeled on a program at the University of Rochester and has been part of the curriculum since 2018. 

As a member of the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP), a Department of Defense (DoD) Center of Excellence, Scott presents those students with the opportunity to learn and practice cooking skills while working through a clinically relevant case. Also working with the students are an RD and/or dietetic intern from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and/or a public health professional alongside a physician clinician and/or nurse practitioner. 

“There’s a great intersection where learning happens between medicine and nutrition while students are preparing a recipe,” says Scott. 

The class is competitive, and participants get a chance to win the USU Master Chef Team award at the end. Also, during B3, the topic of dietary supplements is explored. Scott teams up with Andrea Lindsey, senior nutrition scientist and director of Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS), to discuss various cases and scenarios, as well as become familiar with current research and OPSS resources. OPSS is the DoD’s “go-to” program for dietary supplements and is an education program within CHAMP.  

Overhead view of a round table with numerous small bowls containing samples of food, next to ingredients and a metal mixing bowl, indicating a food preparation or tasting session.
Teams complete their final Culinary Lab
presentations before taste testing. (Photo courtesy of
Dr. Jonathan Scott) 
Scott used the Health Meets Food Culinary Medicine program developed at Tulane University to provide USU learners with the opportunity to explore additional nutrition and culinary topics. 

“I’m trying to incorporate that into our medical school curriculum as a longitudinal curricular thread,” explains Scott. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was one of the courses chosen for distance learning for the students. They learned how to modify and/or adapt the recipes under certain constraints. 

“The Culinary Lab and culinary medicine elective provided so many aha moments for the students and moments of connectedness that empowered them when they were in the clinic talking with individuals,” Scott says. The Culinary Lab includes thirty students and is two hours long. 

Explains Scott, “The lab was set up in the small dining room, and we used an induction burner to cook with. Students loved the class, and found it both meaningful and rewarding.” The culinary medicine elective was two to four weeks long and included up to fifteen students per group. At times, there were up to three separate groups participating in the elective simultaneously. 

Another beneficial aspect of dietetics is in military performance. In the past, Scott had the opportunity to give a small pre-mission briefing to students on military field rations, specifically the Meal-Ready-to-Eat (MRE), and how to use the different components appropriately and strategically. 

In military training, students learn that the connection between health and fitness is essential. Ultimately, it’s important to know how to train; the types of fluids and foods ingested; and what is required via mental, cognitive, and physical performance. 

Over the years, several programs have emerged, including the Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) within the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) in the Army, Navy Operational Fitness and Fueling Systems (NOFFS), Spectrum of Resilience in the Air Force, Force Fitness Instructors (FFIs) in the Marine Corps, and Guarding Resilience Teams (GRT) in the Space Force. It is important that students at USU are aware of these programs because they may not only support the programs as a provider, but also take advantage of the program as an end user. 

Nutrition also plays a major role in Scott’s research. In one study, he and his team investigate improving the diet quality of junior service members (E1 to E4 and O1 to O3). He declares, “We’re doing that by investigating if the addition of herbs and spices to foods has any effect on vegetable consumption.”  

Continues Scott, “Our research has a two-phased approach. We’re also collaborating with the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Currently, we’re just finished phase one and that’s primarily to understand what some of those knowledges, attitudes, barriers, and behaviors are to vegetable consumption while also understanding familiarity with different herbs and spices.”

Once we transition to phase two in early March, study volunteers will be provided with a heat-and-serve meal kit, and the vegetable component will be spiced or plain. “We will be working with the Pennington Biomedical Research Center who developed a mobile app that can estimate the volume of food consumed, which will be applied to this portion of the study. We’ve spent more time phase one than originally anticipated, primarily because of the COVID challenges.”

Through it all, Scott enjoys interacting with individuals, knowing that food can be a powerful tool that can bring people together. “At the end of the day,” he says, “we all have to eat, and it’s sharing that common thread. Food can be a way of bringing people together.”

Scott concludes, “During their time at USU, I invite students to explore and establish their own experience of food and nutrition during their own health behavior journey and as a component of an integrated curricula activity.”