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From food stamps to eating disorders

Feb 18, 2008
by Liz Daube, '05

Alumna and NYU campus nutritionist Mary Dye has dealt with diet issues far more serious than the ‘freshman 15’

Mary Dye launched her career hoping to help malnourished people in Third World countries, and she wound up teaching American students to eat without starving or stuffing themselves.

The 2001 Flagler alumna and registered dietician works as a campus nutritionist for New York University’s Health Center. In tandem with a small team of doctors and counselors, Dye tries to help students – many of them with eating disorders – understand why a healthy, but not overly restrictive diet is important.
“They have a very fearful relationship with food,” she said. “It can get frustrating at times, but then you really think about the complications of the illness and how troubled these patients are. A lot of control issues come out through food.”

Dye said it’s easy for Americans to think of nutrition as an almost indulgent, unimportant area of study because they learn about food to lose weight rather than get healthy. In a culture rife with fad weight loss regimens, celebrity diet tips and wildly popular cooking shows, it becomes easier to see food as an obsession more than a necessity.

“It’s interesting because we live in this culture of excess,” she said. “As a reaction to being in this culture – where you’re almost set up to gain weight, honestly – these people [with eating disorders] are just approaching it differently. They’re going the opposite way and resisting food.”

But in poor countries, Dye added, many people still struggle to get enough to eat. That situation was Dye’s interest when she studied anthropology at Flagler and entered the public health nutrition master’s program at the University of North Carolina.

“I really wanted to work in something using my anthropology background,” Dye said. “I was very interested in cultures, how nutrition relates to other nations and the different problems people are facing around the world.”

Later, she interned with UNICEF and studied their transition to infant growth charts based on breast-fed, rather than formula-fed, infants. The charts help UNICEF dieticians determine whether babies around the world are getting proper nutrition.

As Dye’s nutrition career continued, she entered policy work in New York City that gave her firsthand experience with malnutrition issues here in the States, including local agriculture initiatives that bring fresh produce to low-income communities and menu advice for daycare programs.

“We were trying to get them to allow people to use food stamps at farmer’s markets,” Dye said. “A lot of these people live in what we refer to as ‘food deserts.’ The neighborhoods have nothing but fast food.”

She hasn’t traveled to Third World countries yet, but Dye said she loves being an advocate for healthy food – and she loves watching people get better, whether they need to lose or gain weight.

“When I see girls come from being at war with their bodies to appreciating them and all they can do, that’s amazing,” she said. “Food has become a side note, when really it nourishes us and makes possible everything we want to do.”

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