VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System
Omaha VA Dietitian shows Veterans love of food
OMAHA, Neb. – “Obviously, I love food.” That’s how Christina Hansen begins her story of how she decided to bring her passion of food and food science to VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System where she now serves as the new Whole Health dietitian.
“Food is something that can bring people together,” Hansen said, her conversation frequently broken by a trademark laugh that intensifies as she discusses topics with obvious passion. “Usually, when someone is moving to a new place, their nutritional habits are the last thing that they give up. Their culture, their food habits, are what sticks with them. So, we can really get to know someone new through sharing food… it’s a really special way to connect with people.
” Connecting with people… particularly Veterans… is something Hansen has been doing since the moment she stepped into her current position at the VA NWIHCS’ Whole Health Clinic in Omaha where she conducts multiple one-on-one counselling sessions with Veterans, while also teaching six weekly nutrition classes ranging from cooking instruction to men’s or women’s nutrition. An Omaha native, Hansen said her goal is to find interesting ways to engage Veterans about nutrition and the impacts good eating habits can have on their overall health and well-being.
Hansen said her current “Nutrition for Inflammation” class has been particularly popular with area Veterans. “A lot of people are dealing with pain and inflammation (which) are also underlying factors for diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases, which is pretty common not only within the VA population, but nation-wide.”
“I also want to focus on some of the nutritional differences between men and women, especially during the aging process, (while) also looking at some of the different cancers that affect men versus women and the nutritional components that can help prevent or decrease risk for cancers and different disease states,” Hansen added. “We kind of wanted to have a lot of options to pique that interest of nutrition.”
The opportunity to engage with Veterans about their nutritional well-being is what piqued Hansen’s interest in working for VA. Before that, however, the national Jiu Jitsu champion said she really hadn’t thought about the VA as a career. Instead, Hansen said her focus was on finding ways to help athletes like herself.
After graduating from the University of Northern Colorado with a degree in Dietetics, Hansen said she took a break to earn her master’s degree in Sports Nutrition at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. That led to a year-long dietetic internship with the Cornhusker athletic program in Lincoln.
The goal, she said, was to learn enough to earn a job as a sports nutritionist with either a professional or collegiate athletic program. However, a clinical rotation at the VA Medical Center in Omaha changed those plans. “It’s always surprising because you never know what you will find during your internship or during your experiences where you might find that spark,” said Hansen, adding that the VA’s overall mission was something particularly attractive.
“I think the VA is really special in that we’re taking care of those who have taken care of us,” Hansen said.
Veterans, Hansen adds, often have very specific health needs that often combine nutritional and mental health components. Those are two areas, she added, where she believes she can help make a positive impact.
“There’s a lot of information and a lot of work on how our gut and our brain talk to each other,” said Hansen, who is currently working on her certification in Integrated and Functional Nutrition. “There’s this brain connection where the foods that we eat affect our gut, and through our gutbrain connection, it can really impact our mood."
Dr. Tabitha Carlson, clinical director of Whole Health for the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System, said Hansen has quickly proven herself to be a major contributor to the program’s team.
“She embraces the idea that food can be medicine in both treating chronic disease and managing symptoms, and perhaps even more importantly, preventing it to begin with,” Carlson said. “She is also a joy to work with. (She) connects wonderfully with all team members. She has partnered with staff from varying backgrounds to offer new and creative services we didn’t have before.”
One of the ways Hansen does this, Carlson said, is by engaging with Veterans on an individual level.
“She helps Veterans focus on whole foods, natural foods, and eating less processed foods or what we call food products,” Carlson said. “These modern foods, although convenient, have often been stripped of the healthy and life-enriching ingredients, and instead have become full of toxic ingredients, while also becoming more addictive and enticing.”
As a national championship-level athlete, Hansen said she appreciates being part of a team that is committed to helping Veterans live healthier, more meaningful lives. One of the ways she helps contribute to this team-approach is by combining classes in good nutrition with other programs designed to impact a Veterans ability to deal with different problems, such as pain, inflammation or mood swings.
“I love it,” Hansen said. “I think everyone in Whole Health is so willing to work together… Everyone is willing to go above and beyond to ensure that our Veterans are getting the care that they need… it’s really cool to see that.”
Veterans who have taken one of Hansen’s class seem taken by Hansen’s outwardly obvious passions for food and Veterans like themselves. For example, during a recent Tuesday cooking class, during which Hansen explained to four Veterans how to make a curried shrimp and quinoa salad, Hansen would frequently joke with her four students while also adding in pieces of information about the health benefits of the ingredients they were using, her trademark chuckle ever-present.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Lauren Weeks (Metzler), who served in the U.S. Marine Corps’ 1st Radio Battalion from 1998-2003. “It’s something that I needed to do… to get out and try something new. I’ve cooked for a long time, but this is learning a lot of new ideas and a better way to do it.”
Roderick Burdorf, a U.S. Army and Air National Guard Veteran who served in both Vietnam and Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, agreed. “I love it,” Burdorf said. “It’s something for me to get out, plus I can learn how to cook maybe a little healthier than I have been.”
Carlson said Hansen routinely receives numerous positive comments about her classes.
“(The Veterans) understand that nutrition matters and welcome ideas, input and strategies for improving their nutrition,” Carlson said. “Many have tried quick fixes only to find the benefits short-lived and difficult to maintain. At the same time, we recognize that even the most motivated Veteran who is trying to improve (his or her) diet needs support.”
“Its not easy to make good choices in modern society and often the cards are stacked against us,” Carlson added. “Despite that, it is possible and odds of success multiply when don’t try to do it alone, which is why we offer the number of nutritional classes, individual appointments and health coaching for one-on-one guidance and support.”
Ultimately, Carlson said, it’s about helping Veterans live healthier and more productive lives by helping them gain the tools they need to take control over their own health.
“In Whole Health we believe that healthy nutrition serves as a foundational element for creating a life-long path toward health and well-being.”
For more information about the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System’s Whole Health program, check out the website at https://www.nebraska.va.gov/features/Whole_Health_Launch.asp