RDN Spotlight: Maggie Moon, MS, RDN
What is your ethnicity/race? Did your family have any customs related to food?
I'm Korean-American. My family has a ton of customs related to food. There's a certain rice-cake soup called tteokguk that we eat on New Year’s to signify a new beginning and good things for the year ahead. The rice cakes start as 1-inch cylinders and are sliced thinly on the bias so they look like "coins", representing prosperity. The broth is clear, representing a clean start. Because we celebrated in America, we'd have it on January 1st, but we might also have it for lunar new year. There is another soup with seaweed in it called miyeokguk that is given to new mothers to fortify their breastmilk, and because it's associated with childbirth, we have it on our birthdays, too. And there was always a big spread with laboriously scratch-made dishes, whether it was a birthday, national holiday, or remembrance of an ancestor's passing.
We also had everyday food customs like cut fruit after school and after dinner. My mom always arranged it beautifully. She's my food styling inspiration.
Then there are distinct food customs that could only happen in America - like a fully Rockwellian (read: traditional) Thanksgiving spread, plus kimchi!
Where did you go to school and complete your dietetic internship?
I went to U.C. Berkeley for college, where I studied middle-English literature, metaphysical poetry, and vernacular jazz dance. I graduated early, in 2000, to pursue a dance career. After several years as a professional dancer, I went back to school for nutrition at Columbia University. Their nutrition program is part of the oldest and largest U.S. graduate school of education, Teachers College, which was an amazing experience because in the nutrition field, we are all teachers at heart, yes? Fun fact: the head of the program also found her way to Columbia after studying at Berkeley, which she shared with me over my acceptance call.
Why did you decide to choose nutrition and dietetics as a career?
I chose nutrition and dietetics as a career because I was excited to help people in a positive and relevant way. Everybody eats, every day, multiple times a day. Those are all chances to create meaningful positive change.
But my path hasn't been entirely straightforward. At first, I thought it would make sense to work in eating disorders because of my dance background, but I just couldn't connect with the work. Then I got excited about worksite wellness - a captive audience - it was like working in school food, but for adults! And I did create a program for a San Francisco employee wellness firm during a summer internship and seriously considered moving to the Netherlands to pursue a doctoral degree at a university that specializes in this area.
But eventually, I fell in love with public health. The idea of helping as many people as possible through changes to the food supply, built environment, or food policy was, and still is, exhilarating. I've never worked in a department of health, but I've partnered with colleagues there and always kept public health as my north star in my career as I've worked with school food, healthful commodities, supermarkets, and now for a fruit and nut grower.
What was the biggest challenge for you in becoming a dietitian and how did you overcome it?
My biggest challenge in becoming a dietitian was catching up on all my basic sciences, from anatomy and physiology to microbiology and everything in between. How did I overcome it? The answer is really boring: I worked really, really hard. No sexy montage here, just a lot of diligence and handmade flashcards. I came to this field with a humanities background, and science terrified me. So I leaned in and attacked it, and ended up learning a lot and doing very well academically.
I truly believe my foundation in humanities helped me succeed in science. I already knew how to practice critical thinking to make connections between disparate facts and construct a deep understanding of how things worked. My science courses filled in the facts, my humanities-trained brain did the rest.
Have you had any mentors and how have they affected your career?
I've never had formal mentors, but I've had the privilege of connecting with many brilliant people in the field who helped guide me.
Early on in graduate school, one of my mentors told me how impressed he was with my work, and encouraged me to think about being the first Asian-American president of the Academy. I'm not necessarily pursuing that today, but it was still pivotal because it made me think about my career choices as part of a long-term trajectory. Mentors can help provide that vision that you're too in the weeds to see.
Why do you think diversifying the field of nutrition is important?
I think diversity is especially important in service fields like dietetics because America is diverse. It's helpful for people when there are health professionals who truly get them, who literally speak their language. People also need to see others who look like them model healthy behavior and legitimize various cuisines.
Korean food is trendy now, but it wasn't when I was growing up. I had a public palate for school and going out with friends, and a separate one for when I was at home. Now I fully embrace both, but I wish it could have happened sooner. I wish there'd been someone out there to say it was OK to have soup for breakfast or to eat kimchi with everything (hello probiotics!).
Another thing that comes to mind is a case study from my clinical rotation about an elderly Japanese man with heart disease. He needed to be on a low-sodium diet. Everyone recommended low-sodium soy sauce and felt like they were being culturally sensitive by thinking of soy sauce at all. The preceptor said no. Even though soy sauce is a source of sodium, it would be a bigger blow to quality of life than it was worth in sodium savings. Instead, she helped us think about his life stage and preferences, and we landed on recommending a smaller portion of the real thing when it came to soy sauce, and cutting back sodium elsewhere.
What advice would you give a student of color interested in entering this profession?
Be confident in your sense of self. Don't be embarrassed of what makes you different. Rather, explore and celebrate it.
Do you have anything else you want to share?
Not specifically nutrition-related, but I wanted to share that for 2018 I am taking my own journey to explore my cultural identity, by way of the kitchen. I'm documenting my journey at [my website] KimchiCurious.
I grew up eating Korean food (my grandmother even used to run a restaurant in Seoul), but now I want more. I want to know all about it and how to make it for myself. My guides: my mom, my taste buds, the internet, a bunch of awesome cookbooks, and my proximity to L.A.’s K-town.
Though I’m a writer and registered dietitian nutritionist, KimchiCurious isn’t really about either of those things. It’s about finding a closer connection to my roots through the kitchen. Though, hopefully the writing will be OK, and you’ll find that most dishes are healthy to healthy-ish. In my past research, I’ve found that traditional cuisines tend to have a great foundation in healthy foods, balanced with more indulgent festival foods for special occasions. Korean food is this way, too (no, it’s not all galbi/BBQ all the time everyday).
I’ll be using this website to keep myself accountable, to share what I’ve learned, and connect with those out there who may be on a similar journey, or just want to follow along with mine
Maggie is a true Renaissance RDN who works in nutrition communications and lives in Los Angeles, California. If you can keep up, you can follow her on her Maggie Moon website, her KimchiCurious website or you can find her on one of her three Instagram accounts: @lunatessa, @minddietmeals @kimchicurious She also went to culinary school... yeah, she's kinda awesome.