Student profile: Wesley McWhorter (Dr.P.H. program)

2017-03-23 Wesley McWhorter Headshot-sm
Wesley McWhorter, a student in the Dr.P.H. program

HOUSTON – Wesley McWhorter grew up near Mobile, Alabama, where downhome southern cooking reigns supreme, and many locals give healthier dishes the side-eye. McWhorter loved good food just as much as the next guy, but wanted to avoid his family’s legacy of heart disease. So as a teenager, he set out to learn all he could about nutrition — a journey that would take him through culinary school and on to become a dietitian.

Now, McWhorter is a doctoral student majoring in health promotion and behavioral sciences and minoring in epidemiology, and a teaching associate with the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at UTHealth School of Public Health’s Dietetic Internship Program.

When did you first become interested in nutrition?

Heart disease, obesity and diabetes run in my family. My grandfather passed away from a heart attack, I think it was his second or third. He wouldn’t change his diet, because he thought healthy food tasted bad. But the problem was his doctor couldn’t give him any advice except, “You need to change your diet.” That’s what initially spurred my interest in nutrition, when I was 14 or 15 years old. I thought there had to be some way to make healthy food taste good.

Tell us about your training.

I went to culinary school first, where I trained in traditional French cuisine and specialized in nutrition. I learned how to lighten a meal, from a real hands-on perspective. After graduating, I worked as a chef in several different country clubs, catering companies and restaurants. Then I worked as a private chef for an executive for several years, traveling with her to cook her healthy meals. I earned my bachelor’s in dietetics from Kansas State University, and my master’s and dietetic internship at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. I also worked as a personal trainer.

2017-03-23 Wesley McWhorter Kitchen
McWhorter teaches healthy cooking with a focus on flavor. “You’re not going to change your diet if the food you make looks and tastes like cardboard,” he says. 

Why did you choose UTHealth School of Public Health?

When it came to teaching people about healthy eating, I felt there was a disconnect between the nutrition science and culinary fields. I wanted to integrate both approaches. When I came to visit UTHealth School of Public Health, I saw they were building a program that included a simulation lab, holistic garden and a culinary kitchen for a whole seed-to-plate approach. It was visionary. I hadn’t seen any schools pushing in that direction. So I decided to apply to the school’s Dr.P.H. program. I started last August.

What are you doing now?

I’m working in the kitchen and teaching healthy cooking techniques and nutrition courses to dietetic interns and some master’s level students in the school’s public health concentration. I also teach the school’s culinary medicine course to medical students. The goal is to teach future medical doctors hands-on nutrition education. So that when they give a diet to a diabetic patient, for example, they understand what that really includes, and how to prepare it, rather than just giving the patient paperwork to take home. We’re also launching several new classes in the summer for nursing and dental students.

What are your plans for after you earn your degree?

To help make healthy food taste good, and make nutrition easier to understand. It shouldn’t be so confusing. I don’t mean nutrition information should be dumbed down, but it should be targeted. When we are speaking to medical doctors, we use one language with them, but we also need to communicate to their patients, in a way they understand: food.

Can you give us some tips for cooking and eating healthier?

Focus on mastering cooking techniques rather than recipes. When you learn techniques, for example, the process of sautéing meat or a vegetable, then you can apply it to whatever is in your pantry. Knife skills are also important. Exposing yourself to all sorts of food, and learning about where it comes from are key to eating healthy. Try to eat as fresh as possible, and include a vegetable as part of every meal. Aim for a colorful plate. Just making a few simple changes can make a big difference in your diet, your health and your waistline in the long run.

— Interview by Anissa Anderson Orr