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Inside the mind of researcher Mary Cluskey

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Nutrition Associate Professor Mary Cluskey serves as the director of the Healthy Diets and Food core in the Moore Family Center for Whole Grain Foods, Nutrition and Preventive Health, the Dietetics internship director and undergraduate curriculum coordinator for Nutrition in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. From 1996-2010, she served as the OSU Dietetic program director at Oregon State. Throughout her career, Mary held various titles, including serving as a wellness program consultant for the Corvallis Fire Department, a food service director and registered dietitian at Capital Manor Retirement in Salem, nutrition instructor at several colleges, and a consultant dietitian for healthcare facilities. She completed her Ph.D. in Nutrition and Food Management at Oregon State University and her master’s degree in Nutrition Education at Illinois State University.  

What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“I will say that after spending many years talking to people who needed to change their diets for their health that I quickly learned how important food was to people and how choices for food were driven by many influences.”

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“You can only influence change by understanding what drives the behavior. Dietitians need to continue to focus on teaching others how to change, not just on telling them why they need to change.”

What does your current research entail?

“I try to understand the factors that drive food choices within the individual and the immediate environment. The immediate environment includes those who have influence on driving the value system for health including parents, peers, siblings and significant others. While the larger environment has impact upon us, without internal motivators that are reinforced by those close to us, we seldom change behavior. For example, I can see healthy food choices, even at a fast food restaurant, but I will likely not choose them if my friends aren’t and if I lack a perception of the value of health.

“I also look at food choice motives: taste, cost, time or convenience, health and social context for eating. Most people choose for taste, followed closely by cost/time and then health. Perception is also a huge component of this, as healthy foods are sometimes not perceived to taste good, people perceive that the cost of healthy food is too great. Natural and organic foods have a ‘halo’ effect and are perceived by some as being healthier than choices that are more nutritious (e.g. lower calorie).   And, even among those who choose by cost, the perceived value of organic foods overrides the fact that they are more expensive.

“I work to dispel those misconceptions about cost, time and value of food choices.”

How will this make a difference?

“We have been educating people forever to eat healthy food by teaching them that it is good for them. But that does not pique their interest or capture their motivation. The rewards for eating tasty and cheaper foods outweigh the perceived risk of not eating well. For young adults, the perceived consequences are not considered to be serious or imminent so they lack concern about changing bad habits.”

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Nutrition Associate Professor Mary Cluskey serves as the director of the Healthy Diets and Food core in the Moore Family Center for Whole Grain Foods, Nutrition and Preventive Health, the Dietetics internship director and undergraduate curriculum coordinator for Nutrition.

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?

“Maybe the most beneficial aspect might be the realistic approach to striving for healthy lifestyles. Fascination is in the eye of the beholder.

“Food and eating are finally getting the recognition that was previously overwhelmed by nutrition science. We have much evidence of the value of nutrition, but we don’t have enough evidence to support finding strategies that actually impact behavior.”

What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

“Leaning more about how to influence behavior, focusing on perceptions, learning how to promote healthy foods.”

Are you working with anyone else in the CPPHS on this project?

“I work with Siew Sun Wong on B.E.S.T. (Better Eating Starts Today) and on an AES multi-state project regarding healthy choices among preadolescent children. I also work with faculty and staff on the Healthy Eating Committee, with interns and dietitians in the community attempting to provide strategies for promoting and encouraging healthy eating.”

Why is research important in the field of nutrition and dietetics?

“Evidence is what should drive our educational programs and policies. This work attempts to clarify directions to effectively encourage healthier eating and lifestyles.”

What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?

“We are looking to determine the health and wellness interest among faculty and staff and to see if the Moore Family Center can offer services for them. We are looking to explore how to measure the impact of services that we offer on behavior change, in particular the impact of offering cooking classes to OSU college students. I have a tentative project to explore the acceptability of introducing whole grain buns in a fast food restaurant. A future project will examine ways to motivate healthy snack consumption among preadolescents.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?

“Dean Bray, who told me to focus. I tend to do go in too many directions.”

What are your favorite activities to do outside of work?

“Here goes: I refinish furniture; I garden like crazy; I flip old lamps; I make jewelry; and I socialize and cook. A partial list!”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

“You can only influence change by understanding what drives the behavior. Dietitians need to continue to focus on teaching others how to change, not just on telling them why they need to change.”

Click here to learn more from CPHHS researchers in these “Inside the mind of researcher” feature stories.