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Fourth-year nutrition science doctoral student Julia Katcher has received a $10,000 scholarship from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation.
Fourth-year nutrition science doctoral student Julia Katcher has received a $10,000 scholarship from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation.

Targeting disordered eating

Photo courtesy of Julia Katcher

Nutrition science doctoral student first in program to win prestigious scholarship

In high school and college, Julia Katcher remembers obsessively counting calories, furiously logging data into the MyFitnessPal app and labeling many foods as “forbidden.” 

“I’d count grams of food down to the decimal point sometimes, and I knew people who were weighing their food and pinching food off the scale to get it down to exactly 30 grams,” she said. “This obsessive nature where food and weight become a fixation, and it’s always at the forefront of your mind — causes detriment to our mental health. In many cases, I believe it’s far worse for our health to stress about eating a particular food than just eating the food.”

She didn’t know it then, but she learned during her graduate studies in behavioral health and nutrition that she and her friends had previously engaged in disordered eating.   

“It’s very troublesome, and I think oftentimes, most people’s minds jump directly to maintaining a calorie balance and that you must obsessively count calories and weigh yourself to improve health,” she said. 

These behaviors can develop into a clinical eating disorder in vulnerable populations like college students, and Katcher is on a mission to ensure college-age women don’t get to that point. 

“By targeting disordered eating, we’re trying to prevent the progression of these behaviors from developing into a pathological eating disorder as diagnosed by specific criteria outlined by the American Psychiatric Association,” Katcher said 

Now, as a fourth-year doctoral candidate, Katcher is the first in the University of Delaware’s Department of Behavioral Health and Nutrition Department nutrition science doctoral program to receive a prestigious scholarship. 

Katcher was awarded $10,000 from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation’s Commission on Dietetic Registration Doctoral Scholarship. Her award was based on her academic achievements and civic engagement as well as need and her professional goals that include a vision for the future of the profession — with her goal being to stop disordered eating before it becomes a diagnosable eating disorder.

“If there is no medical reason to follow a specific diet, then those who are the most vulnerable to developing an eating disorder who go on strict diets as a means to lose weight quickly could damage their relationship with food and eating and remove the joy from eating,” she said. 

Her method focuses more on weight-neutral approaches to health.

“We’re talking about non-weight and non-number focused metrics of health like adding positive nutrition to our diets, moving our bodies, blood values, quality of life, stress, and sleep,” Katcher said. “There are so many other factors that influence our health that we’re not always thinking about.

“Intuitive eating and traditional nutrition education — they don’t necessarily work in opposition. You can teach the basis of nutrition — having enough fiber and protein in your diet — without telling someone that they need to track their food and calories every day.” 

As a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a registered dietitian, Katcher teaches the importance of individualized care. 

“There are people on both sides of the argument. Some people preach, ‘Energy balance, you must count your calories and weigh yourself every day.’ There are people on the other end who say there is never a reason to do those things,” Katcher said. “I think you have to find the middle ground, but everything I say and teach comes down to the individual, their history of dieting and what works for them.” 

Now in her tenth consecutive year at UD, Katcher enrolled in 2013 for her undergraduate studies, majoring in dietetics and minoring in dance. She then completed her dietetic internship and applied for a master of science in human nutrition. She spent a year in the program before she realized her passion for research and applied to bypass into the doctoral program. 

Since 2018, Katcher has worked closely alongside mentor and adviser Carly Pacanowski, an associate professor in BHAN, which is within the College of Health Sciences. Pacanowski also wrote one of Julia’s recommendation letters for the doctoral scholarship. 

“It is an absolute pleasure to mentor such a talented, hardworking, accomplished, and determined young investigator who will undoubtedly continue to contribute to the field of dietetics after earning her terminal degree,” Pacanowski said. 

Katcher currently teaches a course called “Nutrition and Activity” to undergraduate students.

“Education and teaching students how to read research and translate it to the public is so incredibly important given the amount of misinformation that’s out there,” she said.  

This past summer, Katcher interned with PepsiCo in Chicago, working with a team of nutrition scientists and epidemiologists. 

“It was fascinating work, and it helped me build a skillset that I hadn’t had to use before. Combining nutrition research and business, you must consider the business impact of your research,” she said. 

Katcher will defend her dissertation in the spring of 2023 and has accepted a senior scientist role within the food industry after graduation. 

“I’m a lifelong learner at this point, and I am excited to take all these skills that I’ve learned over the past decade and apply them in my career, whether it’s running my own studies, teaching, or making a large scale impact in the food industry,” Katcher said.

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