For some first-year college students, keeping healthy habits can be a challenge. Stress, lack of exercise and sleep, and easy access to fast food can lead to weight gain — the classic “Freshman 15.” But Naomi Moua MSx’21 never fell into that trap. She carried a health-conscious attitude into college, one that started long before she set foot on a campus.
Although her parents were not strict about nutrition, she developed her own healthy diet, primarily by reducing her junk food intake. “I stopped eating just bagels for lunch in high school, and I stopped eating doughnuts for breakfast after I went off to college,” says Moua, who is pursuing an online master’s degree in clinical nutrition at CALS.
She still makes careful choices about what she eats. But the source of her healthy habits can be traced further back, to her childhood and to the roots of her Hmong culture.
Many Hmong children live in the shadow of food insecurity, whether it’s a specter of the past or a reality of the present. Food insecurity was a common issue for most Hmong refugees living in camps in Thailand and during early U.S. resettlement. Some still face hunger today. Many members of the Hmong community supplement their food stores by gardening, and it’s an unspoken expectation for Hmong children to assist their parents with growing and selling at farmers markets.
From a young age, Moua has been helping her mother and sister manage a fresh produce stand at a farmer’s market in Green Bay. So, she grew up around healthy food. And this weekly family side gig sparked Moua’s interest in nutritional sciences — and led to her ultimate career choice.
For many Hmong people of Moua’s parents’ generation, survival defines their relationship to food. But Moua’s interest extends beyond eat-to-live to how food affects human health. A key question continues to drive Moua: What is the science behind the food we eat? And she hopes to have the opportunity to delve into this question with members of the Hmong community and other underrepresented groups — to teach them why it’s important to balance their diets, and how.
The opportunity to share knowledge with others is one of the reasons Moua aspired to become a clinical dietitian (a registered dietitian who works in a health care setting) as early as her junior year of high school. “I had heard of Hmong doctors and nurses, but I had never heard of a Hmong clinical dietitian before then,” Moua says. “I decided I wanted to do it. Why not be the first?”
This goal steered Moua to the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in human biology with an emphasis in dietetics and nutrition. Later, while pursuing her master’s program at CALS, Moua’s internship at Aspirus Riverview Hospital in central Wisconsin confirmed her passion and interest in the field. While walking rounds with doctors and nurses, she gained in-depth knowledge about human diseases and, with the guidance of a preceptor, taught patients about the relationships between their health and the foods they eat.
“We saw Naomi’s determination to achieve the RDN credential in her study of clinical nutrition in many domains — clinical, public health, and the food system — and in the time she spent in supervised experiential learning opportunities, from the school cafeteria to the ICU,” says Cassandra Vanderwall, director of the UW Health Integrated Graduate Program in Nutrition, who oversaw Moua’s internship. “Few have Naomi’s drive to serve, help, and honor, and I know this will take her far.”
Moua graduates in December 2021 with an eye toward working in a clinical setting or as a community nutrition educator or nutritionist for the federal Women, Infants, and Children program.
“I can’t wait to educate people about the different types of diseases and apply my knowledge and experiences in the real world, especially with underserved populations,” Moua says.This article was posted in Class Act, Fall 2021, Health and Wellness and tagged clinical dietitian, Hmong, Naomi Moua, nutritional sciences, online masters in clinical nutrition, registered dietitian nutritionist.