Face of InnoVAtion is a regular series from the VHA Innovation Ecosystem (VHA IE) focusing on VA employees who are working to change and save Veteran lives through innovation. This month meet Emily Hood, RDN, LDN, certified intuitive eating counselor, from the Memphis VA Medical Center; and Kwynn Mason MPH, RDN, LDN, CLS (Certified Lactation Specialist), from the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System.
Emily Hood and Kwynn Mason may work at separate VA facilities, but they both saw the same issue: Veterans do not have a good relationship with food. The two registered dietitians came to VA to improve the diets of the Veterans they had always admired, but often they would find that a Veteran’s relationship with food was based around dieting and guilt instead of healthy attitudes. Engaging with Veterans and hearing their personal stories was a privilege that strengthened the intimate connection both women have with their mission.
“I became passionate about my project [Intuitive Eating] specifically because I constantly heard stories of my Veterans feeling burdened with the guilt or fault from their own diet failures,” Mason said. “They may even avoid seeking medical care because of the shame placed on them for their health status.”
The pair, independently of each other, began working on programs that help Veterans develop healthier relationships with food instead of simply trying to diet to lose weight. After discovering they were both running similar programs, they merged their efforts into the Intuitive Eating: Improving Food Relationships Using Mindfulness (Intuitive Eating) program. This blended intuitive and mindful eating group meets once a week for 16 weeks and focuses on readjusting Veterans’ mindsets towards food and exploring how to re-shape negative behaviors into a more positive relationship with food. This is what helps the program’s Veterans ultimately reach their health goals.
“We wanted Veterans to have the opportunity to work toward improving their relationship with food without emphasis on weight loss,” said Hood. “Instead, Veterans are learning to recognize the subtle messages their body is sending them in terms of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction.”
Feedback for Intuitive Eating has been extremely positive, with one Veteran participant saying, “Intuitive Eating has helped me feel less ‘crazy’ with food. I can learn to trust my body – I have learned that my body doesn’t want sugar 24/7.”
When VHA Innovators Network (iNET) Innovation Specialist Dr. Indra Sandal discovered their work, she encouraged them to apply for the Spark-Seed-Spread Innovation Investment Program at the Seed level to test and pilot their program at other sites. Mason and Hood are now working with iNET to discover the tools and networks they need to advance their work.
“Sometimes you just need to know where and how to start,” said Mason. “As in, who can help you bring your idea into fruition? Where can you go to assemble a team so that you can move forward with your project? What materials do you need? Those are the tougher hurdles to overcome when getting started. The innovators network can help you get those answers!”
Allison Amrhein is the director of operations for the VHA Innovators Network and communications lead for the VHA Innovation Ecosystem.