The Interviews with Elise Roberts

My name’s Elise, I’m a final year MSc dietetic student from North Wales, living and studying in Leeds at Leeds Beckett University. I’m about to complete my 3rd and final placement before graduating in August this year! Alongside my dietetic studies, I also write the student columnist for CN Magazine, which is where most of my non-academic energy goes at the moment!

How did you get into dietetics?

I’d love to say my story is like so many others: that I was sporty and a child and so was always interested in food and nutrition, but I wasn’t! I was sporty but food was literally just food to me, nothing more, nothing less but that all changed when I developed an Anorexia Nervosa at around 14.

I was discharged from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) when I was 18 and have been incredibly lucky to achieve complete recovery. As a consequence of my eating disorder and recovery process I had developed a newfound interest in food and nutrition but had no intention of pursuing a career in this area. Instead, I went off to Canada to become a skiing instructor before starting at the University of Warwick studying International Business, which lasted a grand total of 10 weeks. When I dropped out of Warwick, I found myself completely lost. It was only then, almost 3 years on from my initial recovery that I realised I could pursue my now healthy interest in food and nutrition as a future career. I started a BSc in Nutrition at the University of Leeds in 2015, during which I worked as a chocolate development intern at Mondelez International. I loved working in the food industry but decided that dietetics was more suited to my values and interests, so I applied and started studying MSc dietetics in 2019.

I feel it’s important to highlight that I consciously chose not to study dietetics immediately because I knew that this had a much more clinical focus and I didn’t feel I was ready, in terms of my relationship with food, to do that.

What is life like as a CN student columnist and what are the benefits of writing in helping your studies?

It can be quite full on, balancing uni deadlines, clinical placements and column deadlines but I love a challenge and definitely thrive off a bit of pressure! As most of us in nutrition and dietetics know, at the heart of everything we do is the scientific evidence base but what really matters is the communication of that science. For me, writing for CN has given me really valuable experience in journalistic writing within health and nutrition and it’s great for practicing concise writing which I’m sure all students would agree, is a real skill!

I usually write each column 2 months in advance of publication so I’m always trying to find and think of new and interesting topics that will be really useful for other students - this can actually be the hardest part! So far, I’ve written about CPD, opportunities to gain experience whilst studying, virtual placements and my most recent column is on how to decide between a postgraduate degree in nutrition or dietetics.

Each month CN Magazine publishes a whole host of interesting articles from nutrition and dietetic professionals, and you can even use reading certain columns as CPD and all nutrition and dietetic students can subscribe to their online subscription for free!

How has your own experience of eating disorders helped you help others within your profession and day-to-day?

I am hugely passionate about raising awareness and fight against stigma and the development of eating disorders because I’ve seen and experience the devastation these illnesses cause for sufferers and their loved ones. I also try to offer support to those going through eating disorders wherever I can, and I’ve spent time volunteering as a helpline volunteer for the eating disorder charity Beat who do such amazing work to support sufferers and their loved ones.

In my professional life, I think having first-hand experience of any physical or mental illness improves the level of empathy, compassion and understanding we can extend to our patients and others around you, so I’d like to think that my experiences have helped patients I’ve worked with so far. I think my experiences have also made me more aware of the prevalence and early warning signs of disordered eating and I can think of instances where I’ve been able to pick up on and raise issues with my supervisors when I think there are alarm bells ringing for certain patients.

Do you find disordered eating an issue within the profession and how do you tackle/deal with this personally?

It’s quite well recognised that the prevalence of eating disorders within dietetics is high, what we don’t know is whether being in dietetics causes eating disorders, through the pressure to “look like a dietitian” (I myself have myself been told by a stranger not to gain weight if I want to be a dietitian!) or whether having a current or historical eating disorder leads to an interest in nutrition and dietetics.

Whatever the reason, its rarely discussed or addressed which I think is naive and potentially dangerous. In any other profession, turning such adversity into a positive career would be applauded (I was mugged so I became a police officer, kind of thing) but for some reason, this topic seems to be taboo.

We know lots of people find their way into dietetics following an eating disorder (I’m one of them) and that’s so okay. What’s not okay, in my opinion, is to be secretive or to be knowingly battling an eating disorder and not consider the impact this may have on your clinical practice. Equally, over the 6 years that I’ve been in the world of nutrition, I have often questioned how healthy it is for the many course-mates I’ve known to be in the throes of an eating disorder, to be surrounded by and putting even more energy into thinking about food and health. I think the ethics and safety of this need to be considered from both sides, but we can’t do this if it remains taboo.

All I can do, is be open and honest about my own experiences and encourage others to do the same. I hope that by openly sharing my own story, I can highlight that not only is it possible to

fully and completely recover from an eating disorder, it’s also possible to turn this into a positive career in a safe and healthy way. I hope that in doing this, those in the profession who do find themselves in need of support won’t be afraid to get help and everyone will be better off!

What are your dreams and aspirations for the future?

Following on from the theme of this interview, whilst I obviously have an interest in eating disorders, I won’t pin myself down to a specific area just because of my history. I think it’s also important to recognise that despite having been completely recovered for a number of years, being confronted with the issues which once affected me could be difficult to manage.

I want to explore as many of the areas that dietetics has to offer! I’m currently applying for my first Band 5 position which I’m really excited about and I hope to continue writing and working in some of the more unusual areas of dietetics alongside my work in the NHS!

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