After Burning Out, Swimmer Plunges into Whole-Food Nutrition

Freeman in campus garden

As a competitive swimmer at the University of Virginia (UVA), Ellen Freeman trained with the best resources that Division I college athletics had to offer. Each day she ate in the athletes-only dining facility, her diet supervised by training staff who helped her formulate energy-packed meals. Breakfast might include six egg whites, meat, a bagel with cream cheese, and a pastry. Lunch would include a deli-meat sandwich and a protein shake.

Those meals helped her reach 6,000 calories a day, enough to fuel 35 hours of swimming a week. But they weren't enough to keep her immunity strong. In the fall of her freshman year, with Olympic trials approaching, Freeman contracted the viral disease mononucleosis ("mono"). Even with medication, her strength vanished.

"I just hit a wall," she says. "I would dive into the pool and literally could not get my arms to swim to the other side."

She went to Kathy Gibbons, PhD, a biochemist and nutritional counselor who suggested she stop her medications and replace them with … food. Dr. Gibbons taught Freeman about whole-food nutrition, which focuses on eating a rich variety of foods in their unprocessed forms. There were no miracle foods — some roots and herbs, but mainly a colorful array of vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruits.

Freeman swimming

Freeman, still recovering from mono, felt well enough to resume training and compete in Olympic trials — a highlight of a competitive swimming career that began when she was 4. She says learning about whole-food nutrition was a turning point in understanding how to take care of herself.

"Before that, I didn't see the connections between what you put in your mouth and how you feel, how you perform, or your immunity," she says. "When I got sick, I was shocked at first, thinking 'Why me?' But then I looked at how hard I was pushing my body over the last three years and what I was feeding it. It was almost a given that my body would fall prey to sickness."

Learning about caring for herself made Freeman want to help others in the same way. She researched nutrition schools across the country, discovered that Bastyr University's program rests on a whole-food foundation, and applied to the Master of Science in Nutrition / Didactic Program in Dietetics (MSN/DPD) program. This June she will graduate, and in the fall she will begin Bastyr's selective dietetic internship.

Helping Others Change

At Bastyr, Freeman has been delighted to find classmates who speak her language.

"I sat down the first day and started talking about kale chips and no one batted an eye," she says. "They chimed in on their favorite way of cooking them."

She sits outside in the campus medicinal herb garden, drinking a cold-pressed nettle infusion — her "morning multivitamin." She tries to learn everything she can about foods and the science behind them. But the most surprising part of Bastyr's program has been the role of counseling in nutrition, she says. The program includes training in motivational interviewing, an approach that helps patients discover their own motivation for making lifestyle changes, rather than just receiving advice from a counselor.

"Motivational interviewing teaches that all of the answers lie within the client," says Cristen Harris, PhD, RD, a core faculty member in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science who teaches the Nutritional Counseling course. "It's about motivating people to find their own solutions."

Freeman holds kale in kitchen

The approach made sense to Freeman as soon as she learned it.

"I'm not only learning about nutrition," she says. "I'm learning about treating people with integrity and care. I'm learning how to build relationships with clients.

"When you're not looking at someone as a machine, and you're looking at them as an individual with emotions and imperfections, you can treat them so much differently. At UVA, I was probably being fed optimal nutrients. They had calculated what I was eating down to the calorie. But obviously that wasn't enough."

Clinical Training

Freeman's two quarters of clinical training at Bastyr Center for Natural Health gave her practice in nutritional counseling. There, student nutrition clinicians meet with patients while faculty supervisors watch on a video feed from the next room. Clinical faculty are supportive, not reprimanding, says Freeman, and this safety net has been key for developing skills, she says.

After the yearlong dietetic internship, she plans to return to her home state of Colorado and get to work — possibly working with athletes, a corporate wellness program, a school-to-garden program or some combination of these.

"Yes, I have a head full of information, but clients most want me to support them. So many people sitting across from me just light up when I say, 'I think you can do it.' It's up to me to help them see what they can do. So I'm never just telling someone to eat something. I'm just gently guiding them toward what they wanted to eat the whole time."

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Learn more about studying nutrition at Bastyr University.

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