This International Faculty Exchange Is Training the Next Generation of Nutritionists in Eating Disorder Care | THIS Today

Anyone can suffer from an eating disorder. In fact, it’s likely that some of the most vulnerable populations are not ones you would consider prime candidates for disordered eating—men, athletes, and low-income individuals, for example.

That’s just one of the points two professors from different continents are trying to highlight in an international faculty exchange.

Over the summer, Paula Quatromoni (SPH’01), a Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences associate professor and chair of health sciences, spent 12 weeks teaching nutrition and dietetics students about eating disorders and sports nutrition at the University of Pavia in Pavia, Italy. This semester, Cinzia Ferraris, the Pavia professor, is here at Boston University as a guest speaker on nutrition and eating disorder care in multiple Sargent classes.

Ferraris is a longtime researcher, registered dietitian (RDN), and professor who specializes in sports nutrition and disordered-eating treatment. She’ also an expert on using a diet to treat a disorder such as epilepsy. She’s the director of the University of Pavia Food Education and Sport Nutrition Laboratory, as well as its public health, experimental, and forensic medicine department.

Quatromoni is also a longtime researcher and RDN specializing in sports nutrition and disordered-eating treatment. Her work with BU student-athletes helped establish the sports nutrition services at Sargent Choice Nutrition Center (SCNC) and BU Athletics. She runs the Nutritional Epidemiology Lab at Sargent and is a senior consultant for Walden Behavioral Care eating disorder treatment centers.

The two academics first connected about a potential faculty exchange in 2020, but the COVID pandemic put the plans on hold. Now that the exchange is underway, the goal is twofold: first, to spur research and collaboration among two leading institutions in the nutrition field. (The University of Pavia has the oldest dietetics program in Italy. Sargent offers extensive training on eating disorders to its students in addition to its SCNC and Nutritional Epidemiology Lab.) Second is to prepare the next generation of nutritionists and dietitians to properly treat eating disorders , particularly in athletes.

“Eating disorders are globally under-resourced, underdiagnosed, and undertreated,” Quatromoni says.

That can in part be attributed to the lack of training for nutritionists and dietitians at the college level, she adds. Treating and even recognizing eating disorders requires specialized knowledge—such as knowing specific physical symptoms of malnutrition, for one, and the ability to empathetically counsel patients who have severe issues with food—that many university programs don’t cover in depth. So ultimately, she says, there is a dearth of professionals who are fully equipped to treat eating disorders.

And if we think we have trouble accessing eating disorder care in the United States, Quatromoni continues, “it’s even worse in Italy. The opportunities for dietitians to train are small.”

That’s why Quatromoni spent her time in Pavia teaching doctoral students in a seminar on eating disorders in sports, and also taught graduate students in the University’s new master’s program in nutritional counseling for dietitians. The program, which Ferraris worked to establish, is the first of its kind in Italy.

The program is for working dietitians looking to get a certificate in lifestyle modification, Ferraris explains. “The master’s degree is about using nutrition counseling to help clients go from sedentary to sporty. It’s an amazing opportunity for participants to earn a title as an expert dietitian.”

Since arriving at BU in September, Ferraris has been busy guest-lecturing on developing food-education programs, treating athletes with eating disorders, alleviating pediatric epilepsy with ketogenic foods, and general nutritional counseling and public health in Sargent classes such as Applied Nutrition Counseling, Nutrition & Chronic Disease, and Sports Nutrition. She’ll lecture in several more classes before she leaves at the end of October.

“My first love is general nutrition—a healthy lifestyle, wellness, and well-being,” she says. “But as I continued to work and complete my PhD, I decided to change my specialties to sports nutrition and treating eating disorders in athletes.”

Athletes often require specialized diets to maintain physical performance. But what seems effective might not actually be healthy in the long run. “It’s not necessarily this high-protein, caloric-based type of diet,” but rather a “balanced diet for a specific type of lifestyle,” Ferraris says, “with the correct supplements for their type of sport. I think it’s important for people to understand their choice of foods and supplements and know the connection between nutrition and their well-being.”

Athletes also tend to enter sports at a young age, she continues, which makes it easier for eating disorders to develop in adolescence. “It is very important to follow these types of people,” she says. Leaving disordered eating unchecked can lead to permanent physical effects and lifelong issues with food, not to mention death.

In addition to teaching at Pavia and BU, Ferraris and Quatromoni have also been setting up an Erasmus student exchange opportunity for Pavia students to come to Boston and train at one of Walden’s treatment centers. The first students are set to arrive this winter.

Both Ferraris and Quatromoni are excited about the doors the exchange has opened.

“Students in different parts of the world have different points of view and interests in different topics,” Ferraris says. “My students were very enthusiastic when Professor Quatromoni was in Italy; she opened their minds in a different way. I hope that students here are appreciating the Italian experience.”

That collaboration also translates to opportunities for new research. Lately, the two have been talking about collaborating on projects for Walden and the Nutritional Epidemiology Lab, Quatromoni says. “Cinzia and I started sharing ideas and connecting each other to colleagues before I even went to Italy. It’s just been really great. Like, when someone finds you and reaches out and says, ‘Hey, I have similar training to you and we should work together’—that’s always a beautiful thing.”

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