By Elizabeth S. Goar
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 26 No. 3 P. 20

Today’s Dietitian’s 15th Annual Showcase of 10 RDs Who Are Making a Difference

Variety is the spice of life. It’s also the engine driving the field of nutrition—and the approach taken by each of the dietitians profiled in this 15th annual showcase of RDs who are making a difference in their daily work and in the world.

Many of this year’s honorees came to dietetics after first careers in everything from fine dining and fashion design to modeling and consulting on Wall Street. Others parlayed their training and creative talents in videography and fashion styling into careers such as social media influencer, holistic wellness practitioner, and supplement formulator. Even those in more traditional roles in hospitals, health systems, and private practice have added their own unique flair to amplify the profession’s impact on patients and communities.

Regardless of how they apply their skills, talents, and training, this year’s winners all share a common interest in advancing the dietetics profession, providing culturally appropriate and sustainable nutrition, and addressing social issues such as food insecurity and bias.

As is always the case, selecting 10 RDs from the hundreds you nominated to be part of this year’s TD10 was a daunting prospect and truly showcased the profession we are proud to recognize during National Nutrition Month® and on Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Day.

We’re confident you’ll be as impressed by this year’s TD10 as we were and that you’ll find in their stories the inspiration to make your own mark on the nutrition profession in the years to come.

Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN
Director of Culinary Medicine and Teaching Kitchen at SBH Health System in Bronx, New York, and Owner of Chef Abbie Gellman and co-owner of Culinary Nutrition Studio

Abbie Gellman calls herself a career changer. She started in hospitality consulting on Wall Street while attending culinary school because “I kept thinking about this idea of nutrition and food that was healthier.”

The 2007 recession was “my cue to go back to school to become a dietitian.”

Fascinated by how few of her fellow grad students cooked, she decided to focus on culinary nutrition. Today, she runs a teaching kitchen for SBH Health System in Bronx, New York, which includes St. Barnabas Hospital, SBH Ambulatory Care Center, and SBH Behavioral Health. There, she leads a team of culinary instructors who teach medical residents and other health professionals evidenced-based nutrition and cooking skills.

“When I was starting out as a dietitian, culinary nutrition wasn’t a thing. There were a few of us who really leaned into it,” Gellman says. “Now I love seeing so many more dietitians wanting to make culinary nutrition part of their skill set because it’s still not present in most schools or programs around dietetics. They’re still very science focused.”

Gellman also cofounded Culinary Nutrition Studio that offers cooking, nutrition, and wellness classes for RDs, who can earn certification and CEU credit. Under her Food Logic brand, she provides on-demand videos demonstrating simple and nutritious meals, featuring her Hella Good Food line of recipes such as homemade jerk seasoning, honey jerk salmon, tropical coleslaw, vegan sancocho, and harissa pasta.

“We’re all very busy. The idea of having to cook every day and make it perfect or clean or whatever buzzwords are out there can be overwhelming,” she says. Cooking “can be very quick and still taste good and be craveable and nutritious. I want to bring those three things together.”

Geanella Vera-Avellan, RDN
Outpatient Dietitian with Hackensack Meridian Health (HMH) in Edison, New Jersey

Geanella Vera-Avellan is proof that it doesn’t take years to elicit change. Just two years after her internship, the young dietitian developed several initiatives that have reshaped outpatient nutrition services at HMH’s Raritan Bay and Old Bridge Medical Centers.

To grow the outpatient nutrition service, she partnered with community organizations to provide a nutrition education component. She also worked with the mayor’s wellness campaign and YMCA social services to educate youth groups and adults on diabetes and healthful eating.

“People wanted to learn what was entailed with getting their diabetes checked or how to get a nutrition appointment with a dietitian, or just learn what a dietitian does,” she says. “It was extremely rewarding to see the community participate.”

Vera-Avellan also was involved with an HMH initiative targeting heart failure patients with nutrition services to reduce mortality and readmissions. She helped create a protocol that includes providing diet education within 48 hours of admission and post discharge follow-up care to connect individuals with outpatient services and resolve barriers to access, such as arranging transportation or virtual visits.

“The time you get with a patient is already so limited. If you want to elicit change, you have to make sure they’re following up with their provider after [discharge] and create personalized goals,” says Vera-Avellan, who recently took on a new role with HMH managing community wellness initiatives. “Community outreach is one of my true passions because you get to hear from the community what it needs from us as providers.”

Grace Whitmer, MPH, RD, LD
Senior Clinical Dietitian–GI Surgery Oncology with MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston

Malnutrition is a significant challenge for cancer patients. Whether related to treatment or comfort or end-of-life care, nutrition advocacy and education is an important aspect of cancer care—one Grace Whitmer is taking straight to the patient record.

In a previous role at MD Anderson, Whitmer established a protocol wherein RDs directly alert patients’ care teams to malnutrition diagnoses “so that the whole team could be more supportive of trying to rectify [it] throughout their treatment plan.”

More recently, she collaborated with the interventional radiology (IR) team on a new protocol to include feeding tube placement and tube type in both the IR surgical medical record and RD notes to ensure patients are given the correct supplies. This included a HIPAA-compliant process for adding photos of the feeding tubes and connectors to progress notes.

RDs partnering with IR is unusual, but “I was immediately invested in championing the IR collaboration,” says Whitmer, who worked previously with IR to align recommendations for venting gastrostomy education for patients. “Through that process I gained confidence in asking for a seat at the table.”

For Whitmer, advocating for her patients means taking whatever steps she can to provide them and their care teams with clarity around all aspects of nutrition. This includes developing patient education handouts specific to such issues as bowel obstructions and new venting gastrostomies, postoperative diet modifications, and appropriate supplements.

“Anytime I find that recommendations aren’t consistent or there could be confusion for providers or patients, I’m going to figure out who the main stakeholders are and get them involved in making it a less confusing discharge,” she says.

Heather Caplan, RDN
Founder and CEO of Weight Inclusive Nutrition and Dietetics (WIND) in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Weight inclusive cognitive dissonance plagued Heather Caplan early in her career—specifically, the conflict between what’s considered disordered eating in people with lower BMIs but recommended “healthful” behavior for those in larger bodies.

“If you looked at a Venn diagram, there would be a big overlap,” she says. “It was a little confusing for me. Why is it okay for one person but considered disordered for somebody else?”

Resolving that internal conflict led her to research on weight stigma, nondiet nutrition, and weight-inclusive principles that focus on other markers of health and wellbeing rather than weight. Eventually, she found a community of like-minded dietitians and “the rest,” she says, “is history. I started practicing that way and [continued] trying to learn as much as I could.”

Caplan’s frustration with the limited educational opportunities and preapproved continuing education came to a head at the 2018 Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo™, which included just two weight-inclusive sessions. She took action, launching WIND and holding its first event in New York City later that year.

Today, WIND hosts two annual conferences, monthly webinars, and workshops, offering up to 45 hours of continuing education. It also offers a professional membership.

A staunch advocate for weight-inclusive approaches to nutrition, Caplan educates providers and students on how weight-centered practices and societal norms “have perpetuated the harms of weight stigma … and how the goal [of weight-inclusion] is to create more accessible, equitable care environments and practices.”

She adds, “Nutrition is a young science. It’s okay for us to learn and change and use new evidence to make new practices.”

Mercy Aremu, RDN
Executive Director and Founder of Healing Favor Nutrition in Georgia

Food can be medicine for those affected by a wide range of chronic illnesses. Yet for millions of Americans, preventative nutrition and nutrition counseling is out of reach.

Mercy Aremu saw the detrimental impacts of this gap firsthand while working as a renal dialysis dietitian. She had patients in their 30s whose kidney failure might have been prevented had they received the right nutrition guidance when diagnosed with diabetes or high blood pressure in their 20s. She also personally experienced the benefits of food as medicine when a doctor sent her to a health food store instead of a pharmacy to heal her own chronic condition.

She founded Healing Favor Nutrition to bridge the gap for the “millions of Americans affected by diet-related chronic diseases. They simply need more access to preventative nutrition services,” she says.

Healing Favor Nutrition is a nonprofit providing free or low-cost nutrition education treatment services to low-income families and other underserved and underrepresented populations. Through community presentations, group and individual education, and other activities, it promotes nutrition to prevent major causes of disease and reduce health disparities.

At the beginning, Aremu personally funded the organization. Currently, it runs with volunteer support, sponsorships from community organizations and grants from Google. Aremu also runs YourFide Dietitian, offering culturally based disease management services covered by insurance.

“I want everyone to have that same hope the doctor gave me when he decided not to prescribe medication,” she says. By basing recommendations on an “understanding of their cultural food and cultural background, I can provide recommendations that are relevant and sustainable.”

Liz Lombardi, MS, RD, LDN
Clinical Nutrition Manager with Aramark / Blessing Health System in Quincy, Illinois

Food insecurity is stealth. It’s also prevalent, touching even health care workers. Which is why Liz Lombardi decided to set up a dedicated farmers’ market to make fresh, healthful foods accessible to Blessing Health System employees and guests.

She’d been volunteering at a community farmers’ market and was involved with food insecurity initiatives at the health system, including a program offering employees reduced cost access to staples like produce, milk, eggs, and cheese. “I wanted to piggyback off that program [and] bring healthful and local food to our employees,” she says.

The farmers’ market opens seasonally and typically features local produce and craft vendors. The health system’s clinical RDs also create recipes around featured foods and provide nutrition education as part of Aramark’s Healthy for Life Program, a collaboration between Aramark and the American Heart Association.

Along with supporting Blessing Health employees, the farmers’ market bridges the gap between the hospital and community. That’s important, Lombardi says, “because those are the people we want to take care of, interact with, and promote a healthy lifestyle to.”

She adds, “Poor nutrition is a leading cause of illness in the United States. [It] increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, all of which impact higher health care costs. We want to look over that big picture and [find ways] to reduce our costs while promoting health and wellness.”

Quanta Duncan-Hayes, RD
Renal Dietitian at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan

While her lifelong love of cooking launched her first career in the culinary arts, it was the death of a cousin in his mid-30s from chronic conditions that pushed Quanta Duncan-Hayes to use those skills as a steppingstone to her true passion: educating people with chronic conditions about the role of nutrition in preventing kidney disease.

Duncan-Hayes, who previously worked with low-income pregnant mothers through WIC, takes pride in her ability to connect with patients on a cultural level, which impacts how well they respond to her counseling. “The majority of my patients are also African American, so I can relate to what types of food they are eating; I can better educate them on making food more healthful. Not judging on what they have but making it personal for them,” she says.

In 2023, Duncan-Hayes received a Regional Recognized Dietitian’s Award from the National Kidney Foundation (NKF)—which honors dietitians who demonstrate leadership, creativity, and public involvement in renal nutrition—for her work with renal patients and the community, and an NKF Fellowship for her community service.

Duncan-Hayes also advocates licensure for dietitians in Michigan, including lobbying at the state capitol. She considers that work, along with the NKF award, as two of her most significant career milestones.

“I’ve never imagined getting an award because this is something I do from my heart,” she says. “I am humbled by the opportunities that have been afforded through school, work, and the support from my husband and son. For many years, I have been devoted to working and educating within the community, consistently allowing my passion for food and health sciences to continue to blossom.”

Kati Fosselius, MS, RDN, LDN
Director of MS in Nutrition & Dietetic Practice Program at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia

Weight bias and a “shame and blame” approach to treating weight are pervasive within health care, and Kati Fosselius hopes to end both by encouraging tomorrow’s RDs to eliminate them from standard practice.

“Research shows that we are—sometimes as happenstance but sometimes deliberately—using shame and blame to try to get people to a healthier place, often undermining the very goals they have for promoting health,” she says. The approach “takes the joy out of eating and can trigger body image concerns, a sense of overwhelm, and loss of control. Food then becomes the control.”

Concerns about weight and eating disorders arose during Fosselius’ first career as a middle school teacher, where she saw students struggling with food relationships and body image. Feeling she could help more as an RD, she left education for dietetics and nutrition science.

Her interests now include other forms of bias, health disparities, and inequities. They’re prevalent themes in the program she directs at Thomas Jefferson University. By infusing the curriculum with social justice, she hopes to give students “a burgeoning understanding of how they can be part of the change toward dismantling inequities,” she says.

Bias, diversity, and equity are the core of the dissertation Fosselius is developing as she pursues an EdD (doctorate of education). She also plans to broaden her focus to include gender identity, weight stigma, and disordered eating among LGBTQIA+ populations, which intersects with her desire to provide culturally responsive education for future RDs “to hopefully keep us slowly and surely working toward actual liberation and justice in our communities, our food systems, and in our health care systems,” she says.

Steph Grasso, MS, RD
Social Media Influencer from Washington, D.C.

Steph Grasso didn’t plan to be a social media influencer. In fact, before 2020, she had only an Instagram account with 10 followers. Then she joined TikTok and posted a video on magnesium—which went viral.

“Once I blew up, it was always in the back of my mind that transitioning to full-time social media would let me dedicate my complete attention to educating millions on nutrition,” she says. Her sign to quit came when she found herself assigned a role that prioritized foodservice over patient care. “It was definitely a risky decision, [but] it was the right choice for me.”

The learning curve for becoming “Your TikTok Dietitian” was steep and the work challenging. The larger her following—Grasso has nearly 2.5 million followers across TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube—the more pressure there was to produce captivating videos. She credits comments from her followers for her focus on sustainable lifestyle changes.

“That’s how I realized ‘this is my content’ and [began] providing evidence-based nutrition,” she says. “You didn’t see that much on social media [at the time], and it didn’t go viral because [people preferred] hearing quick fixes and crazy diet trends. My goal is to make evidence-based nutrition go viral.”

Grasso draws on her background in videography to produce entertaining and informative videos. “It’s more of a production now, but it’s so much fun,” she says.

She’s also looking beyond social media. Grasso is working on a cookbook and planning to launch a website and blog to offer her followers more than videos.

“I’m trying to make evidence-based nutrition more accessible,” she says. “That’s my biggest goal with my platform.”

Wintana Kiros, RDN, LD
Owner of Reset Lifestyle in Olney, Maryland

Faced with a client who’d reached her health goals but didn’t know what to do with her body, model-turned-dietitian Wintana Kiros realized her style prowess could be life-changing.

“She still felt insecure and uncomfortable in her body, and I knew how to help her,” says Kiros, who styled as a side hustle after establishing her nutrition and behavioral change practice. “It clicked for me that I can help my clients with all my skills to gain back their health and confidence.”

Bringing these three talents together enables Kiros to take a uniquely holistic approach that helps clients gain confidence while learning healthful habits, stress management, and emotional agility for sustainable change. She works with a team of medical and lifestyle experts that includes physicians, therapists, naturopathic doctors, hormone dietitians, nurse practitioners, sex therapists, style experts, pediatric nutritionists, and clean beauty experts.

“Even when you accomplish your [health] goals, you don’t know how to dress for this body,” she says. “We help clients understand what works during transition times when their body shape shifts, [so] they can show the best version of themselves.”

Environment also impacts wellness, so her team includes a professional home organizer to help clients create uplifting and positive spaces that “release dopamine, which decreases cortisol levels. It’s the science behind the style,” says Kiros, who coauthored 28-Day Anti-Inflammatory Diet.

Cultural aspects also are key. Women of color have so many barriers to achieving optimal health so being told to simply diet and exercise “is the dumbest advice out there,” Kiros says. “Having systems, strategies, and teams helping women in [multiple] ways are game changers.”

— Elizabeth S. Goar is a freelance health writer based in Benton, Wisconsin.