Unbreakable Woman: Dana Harrison, MS

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Recently, we announced the winners of this year’s annual Unbreakable Awards. We were looking for women making a difference through leadership, through pursuing her entrepreneurial goals, or through health and fitness initiatives that impact individuals and communities around her. 

With so many deserving women, we’re highlighting a few more and their stories. This week, we feature Dana Harrison, MS and her passion for creating nutrition programs for the firefighting community.

Q: Was there a specific moment or experience when you realized that pursuing a career in nutrition was for you?

Yes, and I remember it exactly! I was a biology major (pre-med concentration) for my undergraduate major, and come senior year I wasn’t feeling like I could see myself being a doctor or going into biology research. It wasn’t until second semester of senior year when I took a nutrition class that everything clicked. While taking that class I realized that I didn’t just have an interest in the subject matter but maybe there was passion there. So after a bit of research, I took some extra classes and applied to nutrition graduate school knowing that the worst that could happen is that I learned more about nutrition and its impact on my health. I’m happy to say that it was a perfect match for me once I started graduate school and found my passion for helping others through nutrition. Now, my goal is to simplify nutrition and go back to the basics by teaching nutrition and its principles to others.

Q: Your Nutrition Education Program for Firefighters is really unique. Would you talk a little bit about this program—why is it important, and how is it impacting communities?

Finding my nutrition niche was extremely unexpected. When I was in graduate school for nutrition there was a fire that destroyed my apartment complex and left 22 people without housing, myself included. That fire impacted me like nothing else has in my life, and I believe that it somehow led me to the career that I have now because the experience stuck with me.

Fast forward to graduating and I was approached by a fire department to create a nutrition program after hearing about some work that I did with an individual client. I used my teaching experience and knowledge gained in graduate school to create a nutrition education program for firefighters by practicing community nutrition at it’s core, which involves building a trustworthy relationship with the fire community. Upon working with that first department, I realized that there is a need for nutrition initiatives within the fire community, as the fire service has higher overweight and obesity levels than the general public; firefighters are faced with more health concerns than the average person due to their job tasks and stress levels. With this said, not enough attention is given to their health and wellness, and I wanted to be involved in changing that mindset.

Firefighters are expected to put others before themselves, however they are only as good as their own health. One of my goals with working with firefighters is to make nutrition, health and wellness a priority within the fire industry.

Through nutrition education, I present simple, realistic, sustainable and dynamic plans for positive nutrition behavior changes. This allows for change to occur on a cultural level. By creating nutrition education programs, which involve interactive lectures, group work, and cooking healthier alternatives in the kitchen, firefighters gain access to resources that can help create positive and sustainable cultural changes.

Taking it a step further, we don’t just want firefighters to be best fitted for their current job tasks by being healthy, we want them to be healthy so that they can enjoy their lives with family and friends. We want them to be able to enjoy their retirement with their health being the best it can be. Creating such initiatives impacts firefighters in both the present and the future.

Q: One of your niche areas is providing your clients with pantry makeovers so that the items in their pantry won’t impede upon their fitness goals. Do you have any tips for readers looking to improve their health, but who may have to keep tempting foods in the pantry for other family members?

I love a good pantry makeover from both nutrition and organization standpoints (my type A personality really shines with organizing). The goal of pantry makeovers is to shed light on the food that you’re eating, which involves reading and understanding nutrition labels. Sometimes we purchase foods (especially processed ones) not knowing what’s in them or how they impact our health.

When reading labels, aim for a simple ingredient list with ingredients that you can pronounce. The goal of a pantry makeover is to pay attention to what you’re eating and to find healthy alternatives to some staples.

I truly believe that for healthy individuals (with no preexisting health conditions) all foods have a place within our diets. How they fit matters. If you’re prone to keep tempting foods in your pantry, can you find a healthier alternative of that food? Can you enjoy the food and stick with a serving size or two rather than going overboard?

If the item is going to stay in your house, a mindful eating tip is to put those tempting foods in one area (possibly a cabinet vs. on the counter or mixed in with other food), so that you have to make the decision to want to grab those foods. Another idea is to get the rest of the family on board with your health initiatives; get them involved by finding healthy alternatives that everyone enjoys; or if they are staying, try to limit the amount of those tempting foods kept in your pantry.

Q: What are you goals for the future? In what ways do you plan to inspire or improve the lives of those around you through these goals?

As a nutritionist and educator, I have a simple approach to nutrition, health, and wellness. My philosophy: eat, move, love, and learn. It’s all a balancing act. Whether you’re a firefighter, college student, or working mom, etc., my goal is to help others find that balance through health and wellness, with a concentration on nutrition education.

My goals for the future are to keep teaching, learning, and reflecting. By doing so I believe my career path will evolve in only positive ways. In the future, I would love to expand my niche and teach other communities about nutrition. Sometimes I think nutrition has become so complicated, when I don’t think it has to be. Everyone eats and there are so many different variables that impact how and why we do so.  My goal is to shed light on nutrition in positive ways by showing its connection with our health and getting back to the basics.