By: R. Alex Coots
The field of nutrition is diverse. Some nutrition researchers pursue their work to better understand human metabolism, while others seek to help people build healthy eating habits. Despite the different approaches in their research programs, nutrition researchersall aim to improve public health. But simply producing the information isn’t enough. The entirety of scientific knowledge must be evaluated and used to create effective policies to fully realize the benefits of nutrition research.
Angela Tagtow, Executive Director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the USDA, continues an illustrious career in health promotion at the USDA. She’s worked in nutrition, public health and food systems at levels ranging from local initiatives to international endeavors. She and I had a conversation about her career, her advice for students interested in policy, and her thoughts on the challenges of policy work.
How did you get your start in nutrition and policy?
Growing up, food and meals were very important in my family. We maintained a large garden which provided diverse foods for our day-to-day meals. In college I had an intense interest in health promotion, but clinical dietetics was focused on treatment rather than prevention of illness. Health promotion at the time was nascent but I saw the potential and oriented my life towards it.
After graduation from college I started work at the American Heart Association as a program director. This position helped build out my network and gave me my start in the health promotion world, however I quickly realized I’d need graduate-level training to take my career further. After graduate school I started work as a consultant in the WIC program at the Iowa Department of Public Health. Here I worked more broadly in the public health domain with a variety of groups such as the county boards of health and Title V Maternal and Child Health Services.
After 9 years, I decided to expand my areas of expertise to include food systems as well as public health and nutrition. I founded a consulting company where I provided education, informed policy, and developed communication tools around health, the environment, and food systems. After 9 years of consulting, I moved back to government to work at the CNPP.
What are the key lessons or skills that you took away from these endeavors?
Consulting work affords you a good deal of flexibility in the types of work that you take on. I was able to broaden my skillsets, increase my knowledge base, and diversify my network in ways that I wouldn’t have been afforded in government. Consulting does have a bit more uncertainty with respect to job security. A career in government is a much different experience. The scope of the work is more defined and the position is more secure compared to consulting, but it may be difficult to advance upward.
The key skillsets that today’s students should focus on are critical thinking, communication, and engagement. As dietitians and nutritionists, we need to feel comfortable being assertive and asking the difficult questions. Of these three skills, engagement and networking are the hardest to teach. Students should continually practice this skill throughout their careers. Networking is something that takes time and is an ongoing learning experience.
When creating nutrition policy, are particular data or data types more useful than others?
All of the different data types must be considered, especially systematic reviews and randomly controlled trials. We need to be looking at the preponderance of data to reach a conclusion, not create policy based on one particular study or study type, as each type of study has strengths and weaknesses. After evaluation of the data, we have to be able to translate the body of research into appropriate policy or interventions. Policy is like a puzzle and data are the pieces.
Do you feel that there’s siloing of academic fields, and that crosstalk can improve health outcomes?
There’s still some siloing of research topics, but there has been improvement. Some land grant institutions with great agricultural research programs focus on food production or food processing issues, but this work is not necessarily connected to the greater picture of human health. Some schools have recognized this issue and have started interdisciplinary programs aimed towards interconnectivity – programs in food systems is a good example. People have recognized the value of an integrated approach, but it’s a process that takes time to develop.