For this week’s Dietitian Spotlight Series, I interviewed Whitney Ahneman, MS, RDN, CLT based out of White Plains, NY. She lobbied to start a position for herself within an existing medical practice and is determined to make nutrition a central part in the treatment of her patients. Read on to learn more about her path to becoming a dietitian, how she’s changing patients’ lives with LEAP therapy, her thoughts on GMO’s, what diet she follows and more.

First, tell us about the path you took to becoming an RDN and where you are in your career. I went to Boston University for my undergraduate degree and loved it so much I ended up staying for their MS/DI program, experiencing a coordinated Dietetic Internship with St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center. My first job out of school was as a Clinical Dietitian at White Plains Hospital. While I grew a lot as a clinician there and loved the community of people, I had definitely wanted to move into the outpatient realm. I was particularly impressed with one of the area practices and noticed they didn’t have an RD on staff so I wrote a letter to the partners encouraging adding an RD to their practice and explained my capabilities. This led to a several month conversation back and forth with the research and business side of reimbursing for MNT and services we can offer and eventually led me to join the multi-disciplinary practice, Maple Medical, LLP. I’ve been here for 6 months now and it has been an incredible amount of work to get an entirely new discipline up and running in an existing medical practice. Challenging but interesting, and so rewarding now that my days are starting to fill up with patients!

That’s awesome that you took the initiative and created that opportunity for yourself. I often hear RDN’s or RDN’s to be that their ideal jobs just aren’t out there– and you went and created your own! What is a typical patient for you at Maple Medical? I work with adults with a whole host of nutrition concerns, but I would say my most typical patient is 45-70 years old and is dealing with a slowing metabolism, weight management issues, and/or new conditions such as prediabetes, diabetes and/or heart disease. They are often been referred to me by their physician to help them take hold of their health.

LEAP test results pinterestWhat exactly is LEAP therapy and how did you become interested in this type of nutrition therapy? LEAP stands for Lifestyle, Eating and Performance and it is a diet protocol that uses results from food hypersensitivity testing, the Mediator Release Test, to build and elimination diet that helps reduce inflammation in the body. There are many conditions in which inflammation may be the culprit; diarrhea predominant IBS, GERD/esophagitis conditions, migraines, fibromyalgia, chronic sinusitis, and sometimes even skin issues. We do MRT testing when the patients ‘fit the algorithm’ and when my clinical suspicion is strong that it’s food hypersensitivities causing these issues. We test the blood with 150 foods and chemicals in the food supply and get pretty, visual results!

I am a big believer in the impact that chronic inflammation has on our health and I think that’s a big part of the reason I’m so drawn to it. It’s also very rewarding work in the sense that we make changes to the diet and these patients that feel nothing else has worked for them, start to improve quite quickly. I think being able to give the patient the feeling of control back is really gratifying.

Take us through a typical “day in the life.” Well I’m very much in a routine. I start out every morning by making myself coffee and breakfast and sitting down and watching or reading the news for 30 mins before I get ready for my day. I love this time to catch up with current events. More recently, I’ve started doing at least 15 minutes of yoga in the morning (most mornings) and I just love how I feel when I start my day that way. Then I drive to work where I catch up on e-mails, see patients (typically 30 or 60 minute appointments), work on any projects I might have going on, and brainstorm/write patient education materials. After I see patients and document my notes in their medical record (we have an outpatient EMR system), I send a note to their physicians so everyone stays in communication. After work I generally try to go for a run outside or get to the gym (not every day but more often than not), go home and cook dinner, and do things like work on my website/blog, spend time with family or friends, or read/watch tv/get absorbed into something useless online. Exciting stuff, isn’t it?

You set a great example by taking the time for yourself, your mental AND physical health first thing in the morning with a good breakfast, some relaxation and doing something that you enjoy. We could all learn from you in that aspect! What is your favorite client/patient success story? Hmm, this is a good question. From a medical perspective one of my favorite things to see is when someone drops their HbA1c from a 10 to 7, or goes off a medication (yay! saving the healthcare system $$). My favorite LEAP success story was a woman who felt home-bound because she didn’t know when the next bout of diarrhea was going to come, went on LEAP and felt better with only 3 episodes of diarrhea thereafter. Knowing that I helped give her the ability to leave the house to see friends or do something fun felt great. My favorite non-LEAP success story is a woman who had diabetes, was careful to buy and prepare good/healthy foods for her family, worked out for an hour daily, and had fairly good glycemic control and just couldn’t lose the last 20 pounds. We went over carb counting and developed some good goals together and within 3 months her glycemic control was fantastic and she had lost 15 pounds.

I love those stories and I think that is the best part about being an RDN. You can take food, something a lot of people don’t give a second thought, and literally change their lives. What got you interested in nutrition? I was always interested in healthcare so my parents had me volunteer at a local hospital every year during high school to gain exposure and one summer I was put in the “Healthy Living Center” which was staffed with an RD. She was so nice to give me exposure to the profession and I just thought helping people with their nutrition and talking about food all day long was such a fun job!

Caprese salad, one of Whitney's favorites
Caprese salad, one of Whitney’s favorites

Is there any food that you feel like you couldn’t live without? From a cooking standpoint I start off a majority of dishes with olive oil, onions and garlic. Indulgently, I couldn’t live without cheese.

What is the biggest challenge of being a dietitian? I would have to say the biggest challenge is the insurance companies. They really haven’t caught up to valuing the role of nutrition within healthcare. Yes, I understand that preventive care outcomes are harder to monetize and model financially, but coverage needs to be expanded. For example, the fact that Medicare doesn’t yet cover counseling for Celiac disease is mind-boggling when the only scientifically proven treatment is adherence to a gluten-free diet and the National Institute of Health states that consultation with a skilled dietitian is an essential element to managing patients with Celiac.

It is also an overly complex industry by design: coverage varies significantly from plan to plan and none of the reps can actually answer my questions or be of assistance unless I “ask the right questions”. It really blows me away sometimes, I’ve come to realize there can be a lot of smoke and mirrors to protect their own financial interests and not protect the health of their clients. I am optimistic that it is slowly changing as preventive care becomes more valued, but we will need RDNs to be very good at collecting outcomes data and fighting for the value of the profession.

A typical go to dinner for Whitney: veggies, quinoa and chicken.
A typical go to dinner for Whitney: veggies, quinoa and chicken.

The question everyone wants to ask an RD: do you follow any certain diet? Not really, I live by the 80-20 rule, make my routine very healthy for 80% of the time so I don’t have to worry or think about the other 20%. I haven’t decided if I’ll need to increase it to 90% as I age or keep it on a sliding scale based on physical activity level. I am in very good habits and at the point where I really enjoy good, healthy foods and don’t feel well if I veer too far outside of that. I just eat real foods, try to minimize all processed foods, load up on vegetables and hydrate with water. I feel confident that all of my go-to meals fit within my health goals.

What is the most memorable meal you’ve ever had? Well I’ve been lucky to have plenty of good meals over the years but the most memorable ones that come to mind aren’t about the food per se, but the company and/or the act of putting together a great meal. Recently, I made a vodka sauce from scratch and had pasta from Italy that a patient had given me as a thank-you gift. It was my first time making this meal, my brother and sister-in-law were up for a visit and it came out great. Good food, company and conversation – an all around win.

What are your thoughts on GMO labeling?
That’s an interesting question because I don’t think we should inherently fear food technology, but I do think there has to be better oversight, and I do feel the consumer should be able to make an informed decision. Certain GMO technologies only speed up natural processes, or help protect a whole subset of crops which in turn means protecting farmers, while others seem to dangerously overuse chemicals and lack thought about “unintended consequences”. I think pulling back the curtain on our industrialized agriculture system and giving the consumers more opportunity to learn about the different ways they can make food decisions (whether it be for sustainability, localism, supporting small farms, seasonality, health goals, cost, convenience, GMO/hormone/pesticide/preservative/antibiotic-free, etc.) gives the power back to the consumer to make the right choices for them. There are a lot of ways one can approach eating, and honestly, it becomes a balancing act because the choices don’t necessarily overlap.

What food or nutrition related book or documentary do you think everyone read or watch?
I just love everything Michael Pollan writes and The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a huge eye-opener for me. I also find the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to be on the forefront of every major policy and consumer food/nutrition issue so their Nutrition Action newsletter is an accurate, digestible resource.

I also enjoy reading Nutrition Action’s no BS, eye-opening newsletter. They spare no industry or “big food” company from their scrutiny and a subscription is only $20 a year. What would you like to accomplish (can be career or non-career related) in the next 5 years? I would really like to accomplish having a more comprehensive and thoughtful plan for my website, and get better on the social media side of things because sharing my real life online minute by minute is far from intuitive for me. I’d like to get involved more in health policy to help make these changes in healthcare I’m so passionate about happen. I’d like to do a little bit of traveling, learn how to garden, eat from that garden (when I have my very own house/land). And of course I’ll keep chugging away at paying down my student loans (my biggest source of anxiety, always), so hopefully I’ll be much closer to $0.00 in 5 years!

What would you say to someone interested in becoming an RD or getting into the field of nutrition? Any advice or caution? I find it to be an incredibly positive, supportive career to be in. I like the fluidity that the field offers in terms of translating a nutrition degree into clinical practice, the private sector, public policy, health consulting, recipe and food label analysis, retail options, and the list goes on. I think if someone is interested in nutrition, the RDN credential is essential.

I am not naïve to the fact that it is a profession that still doesn’t make the kind of money some other ancillary healthcare professions make so I think that just as with any career option you have to be very honest with yourself about income potential vs cost of degree vs career contentment. You can make good money as an RD, it’s just may require fighting for your worth more than other professions. you Whitney for all of your insight and for being a part of the Dietitian Spotlight Series!

Be sure to connect with Whitney:
Twitter: @wittynutrition
Pinterest: wittynutrition
Instagram: @whitneyba