Featured Member: Sudha Raj, PhD, RD, FAND

December 3, 2018


Meet this month's featured member Sudha Raj, PhD, RD, FAND, winner of the 2018 DIFM Excellence in Service Award!

What is your area of practice and how do you incorporate integrative and functional nutrition into your work?

I am a Teaching Professor in the Nutrition Science and Dietetics program in the David B Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University in Syracuse, NY. As an educator I have been very involved along with my faculty colleagues since 2010 in developing courses at the graduate level that will lead to a proposed Certificate of Advanced Studies in Integrative and Functional Medical Nutrition.

What ​are some of the results you have seen since integrating functional nutrition​ into your practice area?​

I grew up in India for the first two decades of my life and was nurtured in an environment where Ayurvedic traditions such as cooking with healing spices, seasonal detoxification and acknowledging the spiritual realm as an integral component of health and wellness were valued. This approach is not new to me but a way of life for me even today. However, I am thrilled that healthcare professionals, including nutritionists and dietitians, are finally recognizing that holistic approaches that address mind, body and spirit may be more efficacious and sustainable than a single system approach to chronic disease management that may not have all the answers. As the movement towards treating the whole person instead of using the organ system approach gathers momentum among consumers, healthcare professionals are eager and enthusiastic to meet this growing need. My faculty colleagues and I in the Nutrition program at our University have recognized this niche opportunity. We see this area of specialization as an enhancement to our graduate program as well as a platform for providing continuing education opportunities to practicing dietitians in the area. My faculty colleagues and I are DIFM members and avail of all professional advancement opportunities in the expertise area offered through the Academy and the Practice group. We are among a handful of programs offering courses relevant to this area of expertise. Food as Medicine, a course offered at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and the graduate level Nutritional Genomics course are very popular among the students. We also have state of the art culinary facilities and offer a 1 credit course on using Food as Medicine in addition to several other culinary courses. The medical organizations in the vicinity have an increasing number of board certified physicians in integrative medicine. We see that as an opportunity for our graduates to become functional nutrition practitioners as part of an interprofessional healthcare team in the foreseeable future. The VA recently employed one of our graduate students in a newly created position as Integrative and Functional Nutritionist for Whole Health. I am confident that our program is well positioned to provide the necessary training for dietetic professionals in this area of practice, expand their knowledge base and build competence for the opportunities that await them.

Where have you completed most of your training in integrative and functional nutrition?

My personal academic journey in this area of nutrition practice began in 2007 when I joined the Nutrition and Complementary Care DPG as a member. Subsequently, I attended the first “Food as Medicine” training workshop in 2009 and the Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice (AFMCP) workshop in 2011. Both workshops were instrumental in motivating me to explore and learn about these newer areas of medical and dietetics practice.

Three things became evident after attending these workshops. First, the provision of food or nutrition guidelines does not ensure optimal nutrition. Second, generic dietary recommendations are limiting because of individual genetic make-up and the environments we live and function in. Third, the quality of what we eat cannot be underscored. The realization that health does not depend on precise, calculated quantities of nutrients but rather is a derivative of what we eat, where we live, what we do, how we live, behave and eat prompted me to learn more about the newer paradigms of integrative medicine, functional medicine and holistic medical systems, such as Ayurveda.

I coached myself by reading textbooks, resources from the Institute for Functional Medicine and a variety of academic journals, such as Explore and Journal of Medicinal Food to name a few. Valuable knowledge was also garnered from networking with integrative and functional medical practitioners and registered dietitians who shared their experiential wisdom and knowledge with me and taught me to see chronic disease and metabolism through a different lens. Further learning accrued when I was part of the author team that compiled the first rendition of the Standards of Practice and Standards of Professional Performance document for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2011. I am at present involved as an author in the revision and updating of the document.

Another memorable event in my learning trajectory was the presentation of a poster on “Ayurveda as a complement to modern dietetics” at the International Congress of Dietetics Associations in 2012 in Sydney, Australia. Having spent a good part of my youth in India, I was very familiar with the holistic medical practice of Ayurveda. Being sensitized to the idea of food as medicine in the Ayurvedic context, I wanted to explore what information nutrition professionals could glean from Ayurveda and use in nutrition interventions since Ayurveda offers a complete salutogenic package for health promotion and disease prevention. The poster was well received at the conference and a couple of dietetics groups in Australia arranged for me to present webinars on the topic. These opportunities further enhanced the scope of my learning and prompted me to include Ayurveda in some of my nutrition courses, such as Food as Medicine. I also received an invitation to write a chapter on integrating the science and art of using food as medicine for a textbook on Ayurveda and food.

I am very committed to my own learning and sharing my knowledge with my peers and my students. My students provide the inspiration and to that end I hope to make use of every opportunity that comes my way to expand my horizons.

What advice would you give anyone interested in learning more about integrative and functional nutrition?

I often reflect on the dramatic changes that have occurred in the sciences of food, nutrition and dietetics since I began my academic training a little over three decades ago. Food in the form of important macro and micronutrients remains the major source of energy or fuel. However, the lens through which we view foods that provides us with the needed nourishment as well as our perspectives on the role of food and nutrition in health and disease have changed over this time.

In the new nutritional science paradigm, food and nutrients are recognized as having multiple identities including that of an information molecule and their influence in health and disease is more relevant than ever before. As an educator I want to be among the first to bring the latest information to my students. To that end I am always motivated to read, learn new concepts from the literature, have discussions with my students and peers and learn from anyone who is willing to mentor me. A few tips I can think of are:

  • Become an active member of the DIFM DPG right from the time one is a student of Nutrition and Dietetics. The academic training opportunities, live and archived webinars, workshops, annual conference educational sessions and member resources offered through the DPG will be helpful both for one’s personal and professional development.
  • Get involved in the DPG activities, network with like-minded colleagues, post your queries on the listserv, follow experts on social media and learn from experienced practitioners. You only have to ask and there will be an answer for you.
  • Make use of learning opportunities such as the Certificate of Training and depending on professional ambitions and resources available one can enhance training through other avenues to build expertise.
  • Explore the food and nutrition duo as a science and art. For example, view nutritional biochemistry through the lens of what is happening as food we eat gets metabolized rather than a series of pathways that by themselves are of limited value. Think of nutrients as one of the aesthetics of food along with socio-cultural beliefs, traditions, source of ingredients, preparation and consumption practices.
  • Keep up with the latest research. Widen your nutrition horizons!
  • Let the learning begin!

We appreciate your expert advice, Sudha!