Job: Donna Erickson is a research dietitian in the department of food science and human nutrition. She earned her undergraduate degree in home economics with an emphasis in foods and nutrition from Western Illinois University and her master’s degree in nutrition education from the UI. Erickson came to the UI in 1999 after 13 years as a health educator in the weight management center at Carle Clinic, Urbana.
Tell me what you do now.
I coordinate Professor Don Layman’s human nutrition studies. We’re comparing the high-carbohydrate diet with a moderate-protein diet. The high-carbohydrate, or Food Guide Pyramid diet, is what is being recommended for good health. However, Dr. Layman’s previous research suggests that we may need more protein than the high-carbohydrate diet recommends. His research leads him to believe that the increase in obesity and diabetes in this country may be the result of not having enough protein in our diets. So, we’re conducting studies to see what happens when the protein level is increased. We just finished our second study this past August. Our first study was in the fall of 1999.
In coordinating the human-subject research, what do you do?
The subjects for both of our studies have been women between the ages of 40 to 55. My job is to recruit the ladies, interview them and select those who qualify for the study. I conduct training sessions for the women so that each of the ladies knows how to use the electronic scale and keep accurate food records. I help provide information on each of the diets at the beginning of the study, put together diet workbooks for each subject, and answer the ladies’ questions as the study goes on.
I plan menus for each diet and oversee meal preparation. Each group eats all of their meals for the first couple of weeks of the study in the cafeteria at Bevier Hall, at a table reserved for us. While it’s a very busy time for me, it’s also my favorite part of the study. The ladies are delightful to work with. There’s a lot of camaraderie, and each group takes on its own personality. After the on-site eating phase, the ladies follow the diet on their own, meeting with me once a week to get weighed and to turn in their food records. After the study is over, it’s time to look over all the data we’ve collected.
Do any of the people come in to your study with any misconceptions about diets or nutrition?
One of the most common misconceptions about diets for weight loss is that people feel they have to follow a diet perfectly, not eat any ‘forbidden’ foods ever, or else they have failed and there is no point in following the diet any longer. What we dietitians encourage is that people have a lifestyle of healthy eating. For our studies, we incorporated a few desserts (especially chocolate) into the menus to help keep the ladies happy. Of course, we had to cut back on some of the other foods to fit in that occasional dessert, but no one complained. We taught it at Carle and our studies have shown it to be true: Calories do count, regardless of which diet you follow.
What got you interested in dietetics?
I had always wanted to be a teacher. However, the summer before college, I worked in the food-service department of a nursing home. The different diets for different medical conditions fascinated me, and as I studied nutrition in college, I decided to become a dietitian. It’s a great profession, and it allows me opportunities to teach.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Trying to juggle family time with work during those weeks when we’re feeding the ladies on site. I don’t see much of my family then, and that’s difficult. We have wonderful friends who watch our kids after school and my husband helps a lot at home, which helps me through that busy season. Another challenge during the second study was having student cooks – that added another 12 people to coordinate schedules with. But, they did a good job and hopefully several of them will be able to help us with our next study.
What kinds of things do you like to do when you are not working?
Much of my time is spent doing activities with our three children and playing ‘Taxi Mom.’ My husband, Bill, is a landscape architect and we do a little gardening, raise a few vegetables, and this summer started a butterfly garden. Bill and I teach a Bible study at our church, and I’m a PTA volunteer at the children’s school. I also like to read – anything from novels to books on nutrition and family issues. We also like to meet people from other countries.
Do you host international students?
Over the past eight years, we have had people from China, South Africa, Switzerland and Thailand live in our home. But mostly we simply invite our international friends to our home to share a meal with them. It’s a wonderful experience for our children, too. They know people from all over the world.