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America’s Nutrition Cheerleader

With the nation’s obesity epidemic growing at an alarming rate, Sylvia Escott-Stump is more certain than ever of her long-held belief about dietetics. “I always say we need the three Ds,” Escott-Stump said. “Everybody needs a doctor, they need a dentist, and they need a dietitian.

“Every home should have the last one, because that’s someone everybody could benefit from.”

In June, Escott-Stump, who earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees at IUP, took her message to the national level as she assumed presidency of the American Dietetic Association, the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals.

Sylvia Escott-Stump

Escott-Stump forged her own path to the top of her field, which was solidified during her time at IUP. She grew up in Wellsboro, near Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon. A family friend went to IUP, and the Escott family toured the campus. Escott-Stump’s older sister, the late Joyce Escott Stanley ’70, would precede her there. “I guess I just fell in love with IUP from that,” Escott-Stump said. “It was kind of a family neighborhood tradition.”

She said her interest in dietetics came from an experience in high school while working in a hospital kitchen. “The diets would go by, and some people could have coffee and some couldn’t, and I thought, ‘That’s so interesting. Why is that?’” Escott-Stump said. “Back then, I think most women were going to be teachers or nurses, and this was kind of an in-between thing.”

“Back then, I think most women were going to be teachers or nurses, and this was kind of an in-between thing.”

But Escott-Stump didn’t think she could handle the chemistry courses she’d need for dietetics, so she focused on restaurant management as a major at first, until a diet therapy course her junior year brought her back to her first love. “I didn’t think I could handle all the science of it, but, as it turns out, I got A’s in all my sciences in college,” she said.

After Escott-Stump’s graduation in 1974 with a degree in food and nutrition, she took a job in food service at what was then Indiana Hospital. She longed, though, to become a registered dietitian through an internship—basically a fifth year of schooling in which a student is placed in a working environment.

But she couldn’t afford to do the internship, so she discovered another path to becoming a registered dietitian: She could work at the hospital and design her own internship program over a three-year period. And that’s what she did. “In my mind, where there’s a will there’s a way, because I really wanted to become a registered dietitian,” Escott-Stump said.

Her learning process wasn’t over, though. In 1980, Escott-Stump earned her master’s degree at IUP in Adult and Community Education. A master’s in nutrition wasn’t available at the time, but Escott-Stump found the program she chose aided her in the psychological aspect of her field and in ways to counsel people more effectively.

“I found while working in the hospital, I’d go in with this great diet advisement for people, and they wouldn’t follow it, and it was frustrating,’ she said. “My master’s work was extremely helpful to add to my repertoire, and I have to say having that dual background opened all kinds of doors for me in my own field.”

At the age of twenty-seven, she was hired to manage and expand the WIC program in five Western Pennsylvania counties. The program provides nutritious food for pregnant women and their babies. She ran the dietetic internship program and also served as clinical manager at Shadyside Hospital. At Forbes Nursing Center, she was in charge of food service for the nursing facility.

“I really know what it’s like out there,” she said. “I’m not an ivory tower college professor sending people out and saying, ‘All right, go do it.’”

For much of that time, she was traveling the country conducting accreditation visits for the American Dietetic Association. Every time she went to a new place that had a job opening, she’d suggest to her husband, Miles “Russ” Stump ’75, they move there. “He was Mr. Pittsburgh,” Escott-Stump said. “That was his home, and he wasn’t leaving.”

The two actually met as IUP students during a hotel management show field trip to New York City. They reconnected when Escott-Stump moved to Pittsburgh, and they married in 1983.

When Escott-Stump returned from an accreditation visit to North Carolina and mentioned a job at East Carolina University in Greenville, the closest city to the Outer Banks, where they vacationed every year, her husband told her to look into the job.

Since 1998, Escott-Stump has coordinated the dietetic internship program at East Carolina, supervising the activities of university interns who work for ten months in hospitals, health departments, nursing homes, and schools to learn their trade. Coordinating the internships takes her back to the days when she managed her own path. “Over the years, I learned I’d done pretty well,” she said.

As ADA president, Escott-Stump reaches audiences far beyond the usual ones in her classrooms. (Cliff Hollis, ECU)

As ADA president, Escott-Stump reaches audiences far beyond the usual ones in her classrooms.

She believes her experiences help her relate to the interns. “I really know what it’s like out there,” she said. “I’m not an ivory tower college professor sending people out and saying, ‘All right, go do it.’”

She has also written books in her field, including Nutrition and Diagnosis-Related Care, which was recently released in its seventh edition. “It’s used worldwide,” she said. “I get messages all the time from people who said they like using it. It’s very humbling to realize you’ve done something to help other people.”

She’ll be able to reach more people during her term as president of the ADA. It’s actually a three-year commitment, including her role last year as president-elect and the past-president role that comes once her year-long term expires.

Escott-Stump said a large part of her role will be lobbying legislators on public health issues and making sure food-related programs continue. “If they don’t hear from us, they assume it doesn’t matter,” she said.

Another part of her job is to get reliable food and health information out to the American people. People should be eating more fruits and vegetables and more whole grains, Escott-Stump said.

“We call it more of a plant-based message,” she said. She advocates eating less red meat, but chicken and fish are good. Herbs and spices, things like cinnamon, turmeric and garlic, have wonderful health benefits, she added.

And eating at the dinner table is a big plus. Family meals were important for her as her son and daughter were growing up. They made balanced meals with a meat, grain, vegetable, and fruit dessert. “My children actually eat better than I do now,” Escott-Stump said. “I think they just figured it out. Role modeling is very important for the parents to do.”

But not all parents are good role models when it comes to food, and Escott-Stump is particularly excited about an ADA program that puts dietitians in schools to coach students on making healthy choices. She’s also excited about First Lady Michelle Obama’s focus on childhood obesity. “She’s sending all the right messages to parents, and we’re really happy with that,” Escott-Stump said.

Still, she admits her field is ever changing, as science evolves to explain why the human body does what it does when it comes to nutrition and why obesity has reached epidemic proportions. “The science is evolving, and we need to stay in touch with that and figure out what’s going on,” she said. “No single nutrient is the answer. It’s usually a combination of things.”

She thinks back to changes in the advice she has given patients over the years. Those with ulcers were given a bland diet in the past. Today, after science revealed most ulcers are caused by bacteria, they’re told simply to avoid the foods that might irritate their ulcer, such as certain juices. “We’ve gone from no more than one egg a week (for those with heart disease) to up to four eggs,” Escott-Stump said. “For many people, other than those who have diabetes, eggs don’t seem to be an issue in heart disease. We took the science we had at the time and developed the materials, and now we’re working toward more science and less assumption,” she added.

Genetics will hold a major key to the future of nutrition, Escott-Stump said. Someone whose genome shows they are at risk for cancer, for example, should choose to eat differently to lower that risk, she said. “We’re learning so much about how a person’s genetics are affected by diet and how they affect what happens when you eat something,” she said. “It’s exciting and a little scary, but to me, knowledge is power.”

Photos by Cliff Hollis, ECU