Golda Ewalt, MS, RD, LD, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center’s Director of Dietetic Internship Program, is responsible for managing the 10 dietetic interns OSF Saint Francis employs each year. She coordinates their education and experience while working in various areas of the hospital, including clinical, counseling, wellness, food service and community. In addition to her duties managing the intern program, Ewalt has been one of the teachers of the “Celebrating Healthy Eating for Life” weight management program which was developed at OSF and focuses on enjoying all foods, setting goals and exercise. By utilizing fresh ingredients and creative recipes, she spreads the message that healthful eating is delicious and easy.
Ewalt has made a career of helping patients eat healthily, both while in the hospital and after they return home. Since beginning her career in dietetics almost 20 years ago, Ewalt has worked in Illinois, Indiana and Germany. She is currently the president of the Illinois Dietetic Association and has served as media representative and organized the association’s annual meeting in 2004 and 2005. Ewalt has appeared in the media on numerous occasions, including Lifetime Television’s Speaking of Women’s Health program as a speaker on “Chocolate as Medicine.” She has been recognized for her leadership abilities, receiving the Recognized Young Dietician of the Year award and the 40 Leaders Under Forty award in 2001.
Tell us about your background, schools attended and your family life.
I grew up in central Illinois and graduated from Monmouth High School. Then I attended Western Illinois University and graduated with a degree in nutrition and dietetics. I attended Western on an athletic scholarship for track and field; I competed in Division I track and was a discus thrower and shot putter for four years. Being a college athlete definitely laid a foundation for me to remain physically active through the years. I am currently a BodyPump fitness instructor and work at the RiverPlex and Gold’s Gym, subbing for instructors as needed. The best discus throw of my career was at the University of Illinois, when an Olympic discus thrower was there competing with us. It was a perfect day, and I threw just over 162 feet. The Olympic thrower threw all of her throws out of bounds and did not qualify for the finals. My throw of 162 landed me in the top 50 throwers in the U.S. that year. That was an exciting time!
My husband, Bob Streitmatter, and I have lived in an arts-and-crafts-style bungalow built in 1917 in the West Bluff for 10 years. We enjoy the area because of its close proximity to work, dining options are just a few blocks away, and our neighbors are very friendly. Bob is the manager of Luthy Botanical Gardens, which is part of the Peoria Park District. He is a landscape architect and has created an urban oasis for us. One interesting part of our garden is that we no longer have a lawn. Our entire yard is landscaped, including the front.
What inspired you to enter the field of dietetics?
Food and nutrition is my passion. I grew up being exposed to all sorts of fresh foods from the garden. My grandfather always had a garden, and we helped him cut greens, pick watermelon and dig potatoes. I remember eating raw turnips right from his garden. He peeled the turnip, and we held onto the stem and ate it like a popsicle. I believe that my exposure to different types of vegetables at a young age made a positive impact on my eating habits and food preferences as an adult.
My parents were great about letting me help in the kitchen, and I loved to fix meals for the family when I was young. This experience as a young person fueled my pleasure for cooking. My mother is also a registered dietitian, and I have a brother who owned a restaurant in Washington, D.C., in an area called Adams Morgan, a neighborhood known for an array of ethnic restaurants. Being from a small community, I was fascinated by their different tastes. I often visited him and worked at the restaurant during summers and college breaks. The chef taught me how to make classic vinaigrette, which I still make today. Being involved in the restaurant environment shaped my life, and I have had a passion for food ever since.
As your career has evolved over the years, what was your most challenging career move?
Deciding to leave food service and become the dietetic internship director at OSF Saint Francis was a challenging change for me. At the time, I envisioned my career progressing in food service management, not into the area of dietetic education. My goal was to be a director of food service for a large medical center. My peers, family and friends encouraged me to make the career change, and I have not looked back. The interns are inspiring and bring energy, passion and creativity to our program. I have had three distinct careers at OSF Saint Francis. First, I was the cardiac rehab dietitian, then I worked as a food service manager, and three years ago, I became the director of the dietetic internship program. OSF Saint Francis has been very good to me in terms of career advancement. It has been wonderful to have these opportunities and not have to leave Peoria in order to move up in my career.
What do you find most rewarding about your current position?
Assisting our dietetic interns to grow professionally is truly the most rewarding part of my job. Our internship provides a solid foundation and allows the interns to focus on their individual goals. I look for interesting learning opportunities, and our medical center is fortunate to have many outstanding dietitians who act as preceptors for the interns.
Another aspect I enjoy is teaching community classes about healthy eating. I use food as my teaching modality. You can touch, smell, taste, hear and see food. All of the senses are stimulated, which makes the experience more doable, memorable and interesting. Along with this, I take pleasure in introducing people to new foods they have not tried before. I want to inspire people to cook more at home and eat with family and friends. I want to meet people where they are and encourage them to interject a few nutrient-rich foods in their lives more often.
What does your typical workday consist of?
Honestly, I don’t have a typical workday.
How did you come to work in Germany for a year? What was that experience like?
In my twenties, I spent a year and a half with a family in Germany. I took language lessons when I first arrived and became fluent in German. Living in a foreign country changed my life. I have so much respect for people who come to this country—it is not easy to speak a foreign language and acclimate yourself to a different culture. I loved the German people and the beautiful land. I appreciated their culture and traditions. It was fun to drive on the autobahn. I might be driving 100 miles per hour, and a car would just zip right by and be out of sight in seconds—there was not a speed limit on the autobahn then. One thing I never got used to was the absence of ice. In the year and a half I was there, I never had ice because beverages were not served with it.
What are the major similarities and differences in the dietetics field between Germany and the United States?
I worked at a 1,000-bed hospital and was responsible for preparing food for patients on special diets, like low-fat or low-salt, as well as for patients with kidney disease. In the U.S., this job is done by the production staff. I did not have recipes to work from, so I had to ask how to make the food for the special diets. When I was new to the job, I remember I was to make low-fat potato soup. I already knew how to make potato soup, so I did not ask for directions and made a milk-based potato soup. In Germany, potato soup is broth-based, so I had to remake the whole batch. A big difference I noticed is we always served the patients a smaller, cold supper. The main meal was lunch and it was always hot.
What are some of the common misconceptions regarding healthy eating?
Take a peek at the magazines at the checkout line in the grocery store! I like to skim the magazine covers to read about crazy fad diets the magazines are featuring. I have read everything from soup diets for weight loss to “Parasites are making us fat.” I always come back to “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
The other issue is cost. Healthy eating does not have to cost more! Cutting back on meat and getting protein from other sources can actually be less expensive. Beans and oatmeal are very healthful and economical. Jazz up some black beans, corn, green peppers and light Italian salad dressing, and you have a simple salad. Add some walnuts, raisins, skim milk and a bit of brown sugar or sweetener, and plain old oatmeal turns into a tasty breakfast.
Healthy eating is not about giving up all your favorite foods. We can learn to make simple changes to our favorite foods to make them more nutritious. For example, I really like Mexican food. I make most of my Mexican favorites with plenty of beans, low-fat sour cream and extra vegetables. In chili and other soups, the meat can be reduced and more beans or vegetables can be added. Making small changes like these can significantly cut the calories and increase the nutrient content.
How have food labels improved in the past few years?
Food labels are important, and new regulations are being added to help us make better choices. One of the more recent regulations is aimed to help people with food allergies. Now you can easily read the label to see if a product contains nuts, milk, soy or wheat. The nutrition facts label can be used to compare amounts of fat, sodium or fiber in products. I think the most important part of the label is the serving size. For example, a 20-ounce bottle of juice may have 2.5 servings. Each serving may have 120 calories. So, if you drink the whole bottle, you get 300 calories, not 120.
Is dieting generally a good way to stay healthy? Are there any current diet programs you would recommend?
I see dieting as something that is short-term—something a person does for a period of time and then goes back to how they used to eat. Instead of dieting, we need to look at making changes in the way we eat. One aspect of healthy eating is simply to have healthy food at home that is quick to prepare. This starts with planning some meals and making a shopping list so you have healthy food at home. If it is not at home, the chances are pretty good that your family will eat out. People are busier today than ever, so the focus needs to be on quick-to-fix meals. Some of the foods I keep at home for quick meals are lots of frozen vegetables, bags of salad greens, fresh fruit, all sorts of canned beans and frozen veggie burgers.
I want to add that, together, exercise and a healthy diet make up a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise is the best way to keep pounds off. Exercise boosts a person’s energy level and is very effective in helping to manage many types of diseases, such as diabetes.
One tip I can offer to help stay motivated to eat healthy and exercise regularly is to have a support network of people who enjoy these things. If the only thing your friends want to do is get together to eat, guess what?—that is pretty much what you will do. If you have friends who like to exercise and eat healthily, that will rub off on you and have a positive effect. Get together for a cup of coffee or tea rather than pizza or a steak. A cup of coffee has zero calories! When you have an exercise buddy, it is often more fun, and exercise becomes something to look forward to.
Some bottled drinks now boast that they contain vitamins and minerals. Do these products provide a good way to balance your diet?
First, I see beverages as being a major source of empty calories in our diets. The calories come mainly from sugar and provide no nutritional benefit. A 20-ounce bottled soda contains about 250 calories. A person who wants to lose weight and drinks one 20-ounce regular soda a day can lose 20-25 pounds in a year just by switching to diet soda. Beverage companies have done a dynamite job marketing their products. To me, the marketing says: drink this beverage and you’ll be more athletic, fitter, younger and sexier. We need to start at a young age by offering water, instead of juice, to thirsty toddlers. Juice contains the same amount of calories as sugary soda. I support the move to rid schools of soda machines and replace them with healthier alternatives. Young people need to develop healthy habits at an early age.
I feel beverages with added vitamins and minerals are not a good way to balance one’s diet. I encourage people to eat a diet based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, low-fat dairy products and lean meats. I have been a dietitian for almost 18 years, and this message of healthy eating has not changed. I would encourage people to spend their money on fruits and vegetables rather than on high-calorie beverages pumped up with vitamins and minerals.
You were featured in Lifetime Television’s segment, “Chocolate as Medicine.” How did that come about? Can you give us a few details from your presentation on how chocolate can be therapeutic?
One of the fun aspects of my career has been working with the media. I am a past Illinois Dietetic Association media rep and received media training while in this position. The chocolate presentation was developed with a nurse, Diane Dunniway, who worked in Women Services at OSF. We presented a community class focusing on the various aspects of chocolate, and the program concluded with a chocolate cooking demonstration. The Journal Star wrote a story about the class, and the article was picked up by the Copley wire, and Lifetime found it on the web. So Lifetime called and told me they wanted to do a feature story about chocolate. They sent a reporter and hired a local film crew. We held another chocolate class so they could film it. They filmed for four hours, and the segment is about six minutes.
I still get requests for the chocolate talk! It is my favorite presentation and as I look in the audience, I see everyone smiling! Over the past several years, chocolate has really evolved in the U.S. It is a major food trend, and we have more and more upscale chocolate being introduced into the market.
People need to understand that chocolate contains a fair amount of calories. It is the No. 1 food craved by women and is often classified as a “forbidden” food. Often when we crave a certain food and resist the craving, we will later give in to it and overeat that particular food or something else. I encourage a small amount of high-quality chocolate rather than a large amount of milk chocolate. One truffle can take care of a chocolate craving.
I want to mention another favorite media experience of mine. A few years ago at Thanksgiving, Clare Howard from the Journal Star contacted me about a vegetarian Thanksgiving story. She wanted to feature a Thanksgiving food article about vegetarian options for the holidays. We did a sampling of several vegetarian turkey entrees, including tofurky, which is a soy-based meat substitute. My dad attended the meal and carved the faux turkeys, just like he does every Thanksgiving with a regular turkey. This was especially pleasurable because we had friends and family over who enjoyed the meal with Clare and the photographer, David Zalaznik.
You are currently involved in a number of professional organizations. Tell us about your involvement in and experiences with these groups.
When I was studying dietetics, my mentors encouraged participation in professional organizations. I remember attending the Chicago Dietetic Association meeting in downtown Chicago during my dietetic internship. Several hundred dietetic professionals attended the meeting; I was so impressed and inspired by the dietitians I met. My first job was in Lafayette, Indiana, where I contacted the local dietetic association. I starting attending the meetings right after graduating from my internship and have been involved ever since. When I moved to Peoria, I did the same thing and got involved with the local dietetic organization. I feel this gives me a connection to local dietitians and builds a sense of community. We are fortunate to have a great number of dietitians who work in central Illinois and make incredible contributions to the overall health of the community.
One of my most memorable times with the Central Illinois Dietetic Associations was in 1997, when a group of young dietitians approached the board and asked permission to hold a 5K race during March to celebrate National Nutrition Month. We got the okay, and our group tirelessly worked to organize the first Central Illinois Dietetic Association “Eat’em Up!” 5K. This year was our 11th annual race, and we have given more than $40,000 to local charitable organizations. I have met some wonderful people through volunteering for the race committee. Each year, it is so exciting to see the race be successful and to be a part of helping the community.
Not only have I been involved locally, but for the past seven years, I have held positions with the Illinois Dietetic Association, including president. This position gave me the opportunity to meet dieticians from throughout Illinois. I was also fortunate to represent Illinois at our national meeting in Hawaii and went to Capitol Hill to meet with legislators to discuss important food and nutrition legislation.
What do you do during your free time?
I enjoy spending time with my husband, Bob. We have a beautiful garden and spend time working outside together. We are members of the Central Illinois Hosta Society and have attended meetings since we met. By going to other members’ gardens during the summer, we are able to enjoy some of the area’s most beautiful plants and landscaping. Besides hostas, I like to grow culinary herbs and use them in cooking.
We have spent time working on our 90-year-old house and are involved in our neighborhood association, University East. I wish more people would move into the West Bluff and realize how convenient it is to be able to walk to work. When new urbanism comes to mind, we are the perfect Peoria new urbanites! We have single-family homes in our neighborhood, college apartments across the street and shops/business a block away. We frequent the international grocery store on Main Street and the coffee shops and restaurants in our neighborhood. The best part is that we can walk to these places; it really provides us a sense of being part of the community. It is exciting to think of all the growth occurring in the area related to our medical community. We want to attract more business to the Main Street corridor to bring back the vibrancy and add even more value to living in an older Peoria neighborhood.
What would you like our readers to know that you haven’t been asked?
My favorite meal is homemade pasta tossed with fresh herbs and heirloom tomatoes. The tomatoes are grown by Keith Crotz, one of my favorite local organic gardeners. In the middle of winter, I crave those tomatoes! TPW