Lauren Sawyer is a public health nutritionist and Registered Dietitian with interests in chronic disease prevention and management (particularly type 2 diabetes), food sovereignty, and community health interventions. Here is her graduate student profile from 2020.
What excites you about nutrition?
I have always had a personal interest in nutrition, but I have grown to love its potential to positively impact both individual- and population-level health outcomes. Particularly, I’m interested in its applications for chronic disease prevention. Health care fields have shifted to operate from a preventative lens, and I believe nutrition holds an important place at the forefront of preventative efforts, which is really exciting. I also love how interdisciplinary the field of nutrition is, as it encourages coordination between those working in the medical field, social work, local and national food systems, public policy, environmental science, and other areas.
More personally, as an Indigenous person, I’m interested in nutrition because of its potential to strengthen cultural knowledge and celebrate resilience in our communities. The process of acquiring, preparing and sharing food is one of many ways to communicate cultural knowledge. However, the denial of access to culturally relevant food is an ongoing result of colonization, so my desire to improve Native health through culturally relevant nutrition interventions is my way of enacting resistance. Indigenous voices and values are often overlooked when it comes to thinking about health-, sustainability- and social justice-related issues. I think the field of nutrition provides the space and opportunity to uplift and learn from Indigenous voices and improve health outcomes together, through our shared connections to food as human beings.
What inspired you to pursue an MPH in Nutritional Science?
After completing my undergraduate degree, I spent several years working as a research assistant on various projects. One was a 20-year longitudinal study that examined the impacts of social environments on risk-taking behavior and substance use in adolescence. Another project involved working alongside families with children entering kindergarten to determine the factors associated with successful home-to-school transitions. These roles provided me with a lot of experience gathering data with a diverse range of families, and over time I became privy to some of the economic, social and educational barriers that they experienced.
A few years later, I was offered the opportunity to work at the VA, where I worked on a project that aimed to improve health care delivery for women Veterans. I also worked on internal, quality improvement projects; one that aimed to understand successful interprofessional education environments and another that examined how facilities were supporting employee-led innovations. I also learned about the social determinants of health and the role of health systems within that framework. I eventually came to understand that being well-versed in how upstream factors influence patient health is critical to delivering better care as a clinician. Choosing to study public health really put things together for me and I couldn’t imagine approaching clinical work without that perspective.
How does nutrition play a role in public health or population health?
There are so many things that impact health, beyond what we eat. The ability to buy and prepare food, the neighborhoods in which we live, the monopolization of grocery chains, the political will to improve social supports, and the perpetuation of racism all act as barriers to accessing food that feels nourishing and relevant to us. Those in the public health field are working to address the inequity and health disparities related to these barriers. Approaching nutrition interventions with a public health perspective allows you to broaden your scope and critically examine how these structural and institutional influences directly impact the health of individuals. Eventually, you see that trying to improve someone’s health through nutrition alone can only do so much if you’re not also considering these upstream influences which are focal to the field of public health.
Tell us about your research or intended focus as a dietetic intern?
I am currently working on two separate research projects, the first one is part of a larger effort to examine the impacts of Seattle’s Sweetened Beverage Tax. For this project, I’m investigating the associations between demographic characteristics and health perceptions of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) pre- and post-tax. I’m also examining the demographic characteristics associated with reporting increases or decreases in SSB consumption following tax implementation.
The second research project I’m working on is my thesis. For this project, I’m examining the relationships between social support, diet quality, and glycemic control in the context of type 2 diabetes within 13 Native communities. It’s my hope that this work will celebrate Native collectivist values and emphasize the importance of using a non-deficit perspective when framing health interventions for Indigenous people.
What area of nutrition do you envision pursuing after completing your degree?
I am passionate about tribal health, food sovereignty, and using culturally relevant nutrition interventions as a tool for chronic disease prevention. I am still figuring out what that might look like, but I am thinking about pursuing specialized training in diabetes education and working clinically for a while. Eventually, I’d like to transition into a role that would allow me to work in policy development and advocacy. I envision working in spaces that uplift community-led, bottom-up initiatives and that leverage those efforts to improve health outcomes for Native populations.
Visit the Nutritional Sciences Program website to learn more about Lauren.