With so much interest in dieting around the new year, you’d think this would be food coach Craig Hunt’s busy season.
Actually, early spring is.
“Research shows that people start falling off the diet wagon at about 15 weeks,” Hunt explained, “so March is when people call me saying, ‘I tried this low-carb thing, and now I’m craving sugar and I’m constipated. What do I do?’ ”
Most area dietitians work for hospitals or long-term care facilities.
Hunt is different. Besides teaching at Gonzaga and Eastern Washington universities, he offers online private consultations on a pay-as-you-go basis.
During a recent interview, he discussed how attitudes toward nutrition have evolved during the past two decades, whether legally restricting the size of soda cups is a good idea, and which foods he’d want for his last supper.
S-R: What got you interested in nutrition?
Hunt: There was a lot of heart disease in my family. My paternal grandfather was diagnosed with it in his early 40s, and my dad and his brother were both diagnosed with heart disease. So nutrition has been on my mind since I was about 10 years old.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Hunt: Scott Pritchard (who wrote a food column for The Spokesman-Review in the 1980s) was my first male role model in the nutrition field.
S-R: What did you eat growing up?
Hunt: A wide range of food. My mom was, and still is, a very good cook. I didn’t realize how good until I went to somebody else’s house to eat.
S-R: What was your favorite dish?
Hunt: My mom’s mashed potatoes with kind of a chicken-noodle gravy and a side of green beans.
S-R: Did learning about nutrition change what you ate?
Hunt: Yes. I was a vegetarian for about eight years in an effort to reduce my cholesterol. But I eventually concluded that it wasn’t the best way for me to eat. I felt fatigued, craved sugar, and my immune system was off.
S-R: What formal education did you get?
Hunt: I started out studying economics at WSU, but I took a nutrition class and fell in love with the subject, so I transferred to Eastern and earned a degree in food nutrition and dietetics in 1990. Afterward, I took an exam to become a registered dietitian, which allowed me to work with insurance companies and hospitals.
S-R: How did your career evolve?
Hunt: My first job was at a Salvation Army drug and alcohol rehab center. I would speak to about 70 people at a time, talking about nutrition. My audience was very low-income, so I had to be creative about their options. Then I took over another dietitian’s practice for a short time, and realized how green I was. I thought I could just tell people what to eat and they’d follow through. But people have so many barriers to change. So I took a couple of years off. I tried cabinetmaking and operated a lift on Mount Spokane. Then in 1994, I took a job at Gold’s Gym as a full-time nutritionist, and never looked back.
S-R: Your primary job description now is food coach. What’s that?
Hunt: I give clients information about more than just what to eat. I assess their lifestyle and get a sense for the person, and really work with their goals. When someone says, “I can do that,” I know I’ve done my job.
S-R: Can someone on food stamps eat as nutritiously as more-affluent consumers?
Hunt: It depends on how you look at nutrition. If nutrition means grass-fed beef and organic vegetables, then money is an issue. But if it means a more plant-based diet – more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes – then a low-income person can do quite well.
S-R: How has our understanding of nutrition changed in recent years?
Hunt: When I was first learning about nutrition, low-fat was the big push. And with that came a lot of products – the SnackWell generation. Now we’re starting to understand that some people need more protein, some do better without grain and others do better with whole grain. We no longer look at nutrition as one size fits all.
S-R: Describe your different jobs.
Hunt: I teach classes at Eastern and Gonzaga, and I teach medical students how to talk to patients about nutrition. I recently gave up my face-to-face private practice with insurance company clients, and now only offer online consultations. I may be jumping ahead of myself a little bit (in terms of the market), but I’ve been thinking about making this shift for years, and the timing felt right.
S-R: Do most clients need one session or ongoing counseling?
Hunt: Most need three or four sessions. The initial appointment usually takes about an hour, and follow-up sessions are typically 30 to 40 minutes.
S-R: Can you tell pretty quickly who’s likely to succeed and who isn’t?
Hunt: I’m always surprised by that. Some of my best clients are ones with caregivers who grasp a plan and have really good follow-through. And sometimes patients with higher IQs are harder to work with, because they’re already juggling so many things in their mind. So even though they say, “Give me more information,” sometimes you have to dial it down.
S-R: When people in social settings discover you’re a nutritionist, what questions do they typically ask?
Hunt: Should I eat organically? Should I eat meat? What about sodium? How much water should I drink? What about alcohol – how much can I get away with? GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are also a hot topic now.
S-R: What do you tell them?
Hunt: Some people don’t understand that information is my product, so when they ask me a question, then I’m in work mode. So I try to sidestep that as much as I can.
S-R: What advice do you most frequently dispense?
Hunt: I tell clients they need to eat more vegetables, and consume more calories early in the day and fewer late in the day.
S-R: Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to legislate better nutrition by barring restaurants, theaters and other venues from selling sodas in cups larger than 16 ounces. Is that the right approach?
Hunt: I don’t think so. If you take something away, people are going to want to hold on to it even more. I prefer the approach of adding something, such as more vegetable options in the school cafeteria. I think that’s much more appealing.
S-R: What goes through your mind when you’re standing in the grocery line watching crazy dietary choices glide down the conveyor belt?
Hunt: I love going to the grocery store, because I feel like that’s my lab – it’s a reflection of our culture. On the other hand, sometimes my wife will say, “My stomach’s not great. Can you pick up some Sprite and ice cream?” So when I’m in line, I’m hoping I don’t run into a client.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Hunt: I meet so many great people, which I feel enriches me as a person.
S-R: What do you like least?
Hunt: The paperwork and income roller coaster when I was dependent on insurance companies. That’s part of the reason I’ve switched to online coaching.
S-R: In your role as food coach, what has worked well?
Hunt: Emphasizing simplicity and repetition, because having a routine is like having a consistent swing on the golf course.
S-R: If you could change one thing about Americans’ diets, what would it be?
Hunt: I would add more vegetables at lunch.
S-R: And if you could change one thing about your own diet?
Hunt: (laugh) More fruit at night. When I eat salty, starchy foods in the evening, I tend to snore more.
S-R: What’s the career outlook for dietitians?
Hunt: Quite good, especially with the aging population. Young people entering the field also are teaming up with physical therapy clinics or working with doctors, so it’s important to be versatile enough to work both with older and younger clients.
S-R: What sort of person is well-suited for this career?
Hunt: You really have to like people, be able to see the best side of them, and work with that vision in mind.
S-R: Last question: If nutrition didn’t matter, what would your last meal on Earth include?
Hunt: I’d have a chocolate milkshake with extra malt, a cheeseburger topped with bacon, a wedge of lasagna, my mother’s potato and chicken-noodle gravy dish, and maybe a green salad with a good chunk of avocado.
S-R: Do you eat those things now?
Hunt: In small pieces here and there, but never together. Like I tell my clients: everything in moderation.