sealPurdue News

September 1999

An apple a day: Pre-med focuses on nutrition

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Future medical students are biting into the old adage "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" by learning about nutrition's role in preventive medicine.

Students studying to become doctors and dentists are majoring in nutrition science at universities such as Purdue to understand how food interacts with the human body. The four-year program in Purdue's Department of Foods and Nutrition prepares the students for eligibility to apply to medical, dental or graduate school.

The programs are filling a growing need within the health-care community. "Traditionally, physicians have been trained to heal disease after it already exists, relying mainly on dietitians to advise patients on lifestyle decisions," says Connie Weaver, head of Purdue's department and president of the American Society of Nutrition Sciences. "Unfortunately, escalating health-care costs and the increasing influence of managed health care have led to a lessening of the role dietitians play in the patient's treatment process."

These factors have sparked an effort toward providing more nutrition-related training in medical schools. The American Society for Clinical Nutrition recently established a $25,000 Physician Nutrition Specialist Award, made available annually to a medical school that offers a nutrition course to first-year students. "Little wonder that students who already have a nutrition science bachelor's degree are in demand by medical and dental schools," Weaver says. "Recently, most of Purdue's nutrition science graduates have applied to dental school and graduate school, rather than medical school, but they enjoy a high acceptance rate in all programs."

Paula Shireman, a 1986 Purdue graduate who now is a general surgery resident at Northwestern University in Chicago, says, "Nutrition is often a hastily taught subject in most medical curricula." She says Purdue's nutrition science program was great preparation for medical school. "Many of my patients are unable to eat and need alternate forms of feeding," Shireman says. "Purdue's program provided in-depth knowledge of patient dietary needs and ways to supply these essential nutrients."

Unlike graduates of many traditional pre-medicine programs, however, students with a degree in nutrition science who decide not to enter medical or dental school after graduation can readily find government research jobs and employment in the food industry, Weaver says.

Ivette Colon, a 1992 Purdue graduate who now is a nutrition marketing services specialist for General Mills Inc. in Minneapolis, says, "Consumers are very interested in diet and health, and my position gives me the opportunity to translate these needs into healthy food products."

Weaver adds: "We've seen our students placed in many industry jobs including Kraft, M&M/Mars, General Mills and Con Agra. Combining nutrition science with a dietetics curriculum increases job opportunities as well. The average annual starting salary for our graduating nutrition majors is approximately $34,000."

A nutrition science program, such as Purdue's, is research-oriented and consists of rigorous coursework in the life and physical sciences. Nutrition science requirements include courses in nutrition, methods of nutrition investigation, quantitative analysis, biology of man, organic chemistry, microbiology, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology, and statistics. There are many opportunities for "hands-on" research experience, Weaver says.

Source: Connie Weaver; (765) 494-8231;

Writer: Jeanine Smith, (765) 496-3133;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page