Food is an important part of college life – but not just meals shared with friends. Some faculty study food and bring those lessons into the classroom. Matthieu Rouffet, Brittany Johnson, and Heidi Lynch are examples of professors who do that within three different fields.

Cooking and Chemistry: Matthieu Rouffet 

As a chemistry professor, Matthieu Rouffet, Ph.D., knows many students are nervous about their chemistry general education (GE) courses. His specialty has a reputation for being challenging. That’s why he’s been excited about a new chemistry GE course he is teaching called “Chemistry and our Everyday Life.” The course combines chemistry with cooking.

“With cooking, if you apply a recipe and use the proper techniques, you get good results,” Rouffet explained. “Chemistry is like a recipe using chemicals with the goal to make a specific molecule.” 

This semester, Rouffet is teaching the course online due to COVID, using videos. When he’s taught face to face, the class has met in the dietetics kitchen on campus. In either format, he teaches students how to make vinaigrettes for vegetables, how to make cheese from scratch, and how to make steak, caramel, ice cream, and chocolate mousse. They also do quite a few labs using eggs, experimenting with cooking methods that produce Hollandaise, eggs Benedict, scrambled eggs, and other recipes.

Now, students who might not have enjoyed chemistry have a chance to take a course that’s fun and practical. But it’s also more than that for Rouffet.

Matthieu Rouffet smiling

“My wife and I are both from France,” he explained. “In French culture, sharing a meal is a very community-building thing.”

Rouffet remembers his parents inviting friends over after church and everyone lingering over a meal for several hours. He believes students crave opportunities for community like that – especially because of the time they spend on social media, which can be isolating.

“I wanted to merge enjoying learning recipes, the community building aspect, and really saying that chemistry and cooking is fun,” he said. 

Face-to-face classes spend part of each lab period tasting their work. During COVID, he has encouraged the students to share what they make with family or friends. Throughout the course, he encourages the students in their Christian practices, and he sees sharing their cooking with others as a way of serving others.

“For me it’s not just about cooking and not just about learning basic concepts of chemistry,” Rouffet said. “There is something deeper and perhaps making a difference. We have a generation of students who are deeply isolated; many have issues with food and weight or diet.” 

Though he doesn’t try to be a nutritionist or a psychologist, Rouffet does encourage his students to think critically about what they hear and read regarding diet, food, and even science in general.

“I ask them what have you heard about this? I try to get them to really think about the why, to be critical but not cynical. That’s really important in a GE class – teaching them to ask the right questions. Who wrote this? Are you sure that is who you want to follow? It allows for good conversations.”

Fuel for Performance: Brittany Johnson 

Brittany Johnson, Ph.D., RDN, CSSD, professor of nutrition and dietetics, has a special interest in how food fuels tactical athletes for performance and how it can improve their overall health. A tactical athlete is a person whose line of work demands physical fitness or combat readiness such as members of the armed forces, police, or fire service.

Tactical athletes often perform demanding tasks and train often – and they often have unpredictable schedules that affect their eating habits. While Johnson was earning her doctorate in health and human performance, she worked with a large population of career firefighters to understand the impact diet had on their performance and health. Since graduate school, she has continued studying firefighters and how to optimize their diets.

“Their unpredictable schedules, waking up in the middle of the night or going on calls all day long, really dictate the types of foods they are consuming,” she explained. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Johnson shared that firefighters have greater rates of obesity than the general public. “This puts them at a higher risk for injuries, which can lead to not being ready to go out for calls as needed or to retiring early.”

Brittany Johnson posing for a photo

The research she conducted and the counseling she provided were Johnson’s way of working to change that. She started by studying the food intake of the study participants and developed a tool for measuring their nutrition called the Tactical Athlete Nutrition Score. This helped her to look at deficiencies within the diets of these individuals and individually counsel them. 

“I’m in 14 different fire departments across San Diego and two in San Bernardino,” she said. First, she has her study participants track their food intake. 

“They did a three-day food record, which is just a snapshot, but it’s a good measure validated in research, and then I looked at how that was related to their physical fitness, sleep, musculoskeletal injuries, and obesity,” Johnson said. “I wanted to educate them on how adequately fueling their bodies could prepare them for things like fire seasons.”

One thing she found was that the firefighters who consumed more calories had lower rates of obesity. They also tended to have higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, and key nutrients. While more calories equaling less obesity may seem counterintuitive, Johnson said, “Firefighters are active already, and they have job demands on top of that. They do a lot of training to prepare them for fire suppression, and they have to have adequate calories to fuel that activity. If you want to become leaner and gain more muscle mass, it requires energy.”

As a part of her work, Johnson counsels her study participants to help them improve their nutrition.

“We have these broad recommendations for the fire service but are also giving them a full report of their nutrient intake so they can see their specific goals based on what they are consuming and what they might need to incorporate more of. We also talk about how they can do that by fueling the body in the morning and keeping healthier snacks in the engine.”

As an assistant professor in PLNU’s dietetics program since 2015, Johnson also has a passion for preparing students to do the kind of work she does.

“My primary goal is to train the next generation and give them the skill sets to go out and help people from various backgrounds in improving their overall health,” she said.

Eating & the Environment: Heidi Lynch 

Personal experience taught Heidi Lynch, Ph.D., RDN, associate professor of kinesiology, that food choices can impact an athlete’s performance. In high school, her attempts to become a faster swimmer by changing her diet backfired when consuming too few calories caused her to lose too much weight and swim slower. That experience made her want to help others avoid the same problem. 

Lynch completed her master’s degree and became a registered dietitian. She spent time working in an outpatient setting where she counseled patients on weight loss, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and kidney disease. She then went on to earn her Ph.D. in physical activity, nutrition, and wellness from Arizona State University. She joined PLNU’s kinesiology department immediately after completing her doctorate.

But her grad school experiences shifted her original focus.

“I had my mind set on being in the lab and doing quantitative data analysis all related to exercise physiology,” she said. “But after I took a class on food politics and sustainability at the end of my master’s program, I found an unexpected passion for sustainable nutrition. It changed the way I shop and eat on a personal level. It changed who I asked to be my advisors at the Ph.D. level.” 

Having grown up in Chicago with no experience around or connection to farms, Lynch had never considered the impact dietary choices could have on the environment. Now, she focuses most of her research on topics related to environmental or sustainable nutrition. Because of the environmental impacts of meat production, she is especially interested in studying plant-based diets.

Heidi Lynch grinning in a photo

One of her current projects, which sits at the intersection of her dual interests in sport nutrition and sustainability, involves studying athletes with a team from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Lynch and her honors student Cailey Olono are creating educational resources to accompany vegan and vegetarian versions of a tool called The Athlete’s Plate. The tool was created by Dr. Nanna Meyer and UCCS’s sport nutrition graduate program in collaboration with the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Food and Nutrition Services. The goal is to publish their data after seeing how well athletes are able to follow the developed instructions and then use the new plate recommendations to help athletes build healthy more plant-based diets.

She also recently gave a conference presentation on athletes and plant-based diets. Lynch is interested in the effects on performance and recovery as well as how these athletes feel. 

Lynch also supports the work of student researchers. She is currently completing a project with master’s degree students from Loma Linda University Medical Center as well as another postdoctoral scholar and professor.

“We collected food waste from the hospital every day for one week,” she said. “We are comparing the trays of vegetarian versus meat- containing meals. First, we compared the volume of waste and then used carbon dioxide equivalents to assess the environmental impacts of the types of food waste collected.”

Finally, Lynch has been overseeing the work of PLNU student Crisel Magyawi, who is studying undergraduates’ knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about vegetarian and vegan diets. What they have found is that the main motivations for students to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet include: physical health, environmental sustainability, and animal rights. The biggest barrier for those who do not was found to be a belief that vegetarian and vegan diets are too expensive.

For Lynch, the ability to merge her interests in sport nutrition with sustainability has been a blessing and a calling that inspires her. “Our dietary choices affect the environment not just ourselves,” she said. “That affects our neighbors. As Christians, this matters to us.” 

Conclusion 

Johnson, Rouffet, and Lynch are examples of faculty who use food in their teaching and research – not just for fun or academic purposes but also because of the ways their work intersects with their faith. Food can be a powerful teacher, unifier, and difference maker in the lives of students, and Johnson, Rouffet, and Lynch help make that happen.

MJ Renner is a psychology major at PLNU. They are the Writing & Research Assistant for Marketing and Creative Services.