Alison Gustafson

Registered Dietician and Nutrition Epidemiologist

Nutrition Epidemiologist, Alison Gustafson
Nutrition Epidemiologist, Alison Gustafson

Where do you usually buy food? Have you thought about the ways that the choices available to you at that gas station, superstore, farmers’ market, or grocery store affect how you eat and how healthy you are?

Nutrition Epidemiologist Alison Gustafson, a registered dietician, thinks about these questions a great deal. She researches the shopping habits of teenagers and adults, looking at the choices they make and the food available near their schools and homes. A professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment, Gustafson does “research to understand how people shop for food and how the choices they make influence their dietary intake.”

Teenagers hungry for snacks after school often shop at gas stations and convenience stores. “They buy power ade or a monster drink.” But “we want kids to make healthy choices: lower-calorie beverages or water. As a researcher, a professor, and a mom, I want people to shop for food at a place with more healthy options.”

Faced with a sweet soda or a bottle of water, a candy bar or a chicken sandwich, teenagers and other people will often go with the less healthy option. “When we’re making the choice between something sugary and something healthy, we’ll often choose the sugary thing. If we make it easier to make the healthy choice, then hopefully adults and kids” will go for the water and the chicken sandwich.

Gustafson and her colleagues have people fill out surveys. They study the relationships between answers on those surveys and the food available in the neighborhoods where the people who filled them out live. “If people have to travel far [to shop for groceries], they won’t be able to buy healthier food: they’ll be more likely to buy boxed or processed food that lasts a while,” so they won’t have to travel back to the store too soon. “We want people to have stores closer to where they live,” stores that “sell healthier food.”

“You can be healthy at a variety of sizes,” says Gustafson. She doesn’t want you to imagine that being healthy means trimming yourself down to the average weight of a movie star or model.  ”It isn’t about being a certain size: it’s really about eating healthily…throughout the day.”

And you don’t have to limit your meals to broccoli and salad to do right by your body.  In fact, what you should not do is limit the foods you eat. “Healthy food is food that gives you energy. It can be chicken…. It doesn’t  have to be a carrot or an apple. You want to have lots of fruits and vegetables,” adds Gustafson, “that’s really important.” But it’s also important to eat food that comes in “a variety of colors” and to try things “that taste different” from each other.  ”Try something different every day: a different fruit or vegetable or a different meat. Have a boiled egg instead of a hamburger.” “Try something that you haven’t had the day before.”

How did Gustafson become interested in the science of nutrition? In high school, Alison became a vegan. To make sure that she got the nutrients she needed, even while staying away from milk and meat products, she met with a registered dietician.  ”Her work sounded interesting,” says Gustafson, who had already been interested in human anatomy. So she studied dietetics in college.  Her major required that she take 30 hours of science, including organic and inorganic chemistry, anatomy, and microbiology. It was “heavy, heavy science and I liked all of that and found it very interesting.”

Because she became interested in the ways decisions made by the government affect citizens’  health, Gustafson got a Masters degree in public health. As a masters student, she worked in Zimbabwe with orphans who had AIDS.  She found herself loving the combination of math, science, writing, and her creative powers required by the research she did in community health. So she went on to get her PhD in nutrition and epidemiology.

In order to learn about teenagers and their families and the ways they eat, Gustafson’s team had adolescents and their parents wear a GPS device for a week. It helped them track where the family members went, who they were with, and where they bought food. “When adolescents are with their friends,” the scientists discovered, “they typically consume more sugar than when they’re alone.” Groups of teenagers buy snacks at gas stations and convenience stores. But when they’re alone, they’re more likely to buy meals at fast-food restaurants. “Who you’re with affects what you eat.”

Of course the food available at school also affects students’ diets. Gustafson and other nutritionists strive to convince teachers not to use food as a reward or to sell junk food in their schools. They also try to convince parents and other people running afterschool fundraisers not to sell unhealthy snacks.  ”They’ll have fruit roll-ups and fruit gummies. Legally, they’re in compliance” with government rules like the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and Smart Snacks in School standards that keep schools from selling these things during the school day. But like the gas stations and convenience stores near schools, they don’t help students make the best choices for their health.

Gustafson aims to help. The research she and her colleagues do should inspire businesses, government officials, schools, parents, and kids work together to make it possible for all Americans to enjoy healthy meals.