If it’s Tuesday at the Harker Heights Armed Services YMCA, Registered Dietitian Carey Stites is in the test kitchen getting ready to teach a group of 7- to 13-year-olds how to cook. She doesn’t focus on food pyramids or plates divided into quarters of lean meat, fruits, vegetables and a starch. She talks about moderation, making healthy choices and learning how to trade in that quick snack of chips, candy or cookies for a more wholesome piece of fruit, sugar free Jell-O or a cup of fruit in its own juice.
“We’re getting kids started early with good nutrition,” said Stites. “At the YMCA we do a lot of different things. With the kids cooking class they get a new recipe every week. We teach ingredients, measuring and cleanup.” With their parents’ permission, these are recipes the kids can do at home.
On the first Thursday of the month Stites offers a monthly food and fitness forum for the community.
“We make a recipe, learn its components, and take questions,” she said. “Reaching out to community is most important to teach people about eating right, staying active and achieving their goals.”
She said anyone can find information online or on TV, but one-on-one is more effective.
“We’re helping people to make healthy lifestyle choices, it’s not intimidating,” she said. “Tell me what you feel. We’ll take small steps.”
An early start to a healthy life
Stites was born in Great Falls, Montana, to a military family. Her late father, David, was a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, where he served for 20 years. She was one month old when her family was relocated to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Since her father was not reassigned her family was able to maintain a stable life in the Texas city where she and her brother, Ryan, were raised.
“I loved the culture and the people I met,” said Stites, 40, wife to Stephen, and mom to Savannah, 13, and Cierra, 8. Stites is expecting her third child at the end of the year. “Military life was so neat.”
Stites said her mom, Laura, was the biggest influence in her life. “She worked full time and built an amazing career as a civilian worker in the Air Force. Watching her work ethic, she was so dedicated to her job, my brother and I. We had a great family life balance. She was a minority at the time, there weren’t so many women working civilian in the Air Force. She was a strong woman and very inspirational.”
Her mother’s work ethic inspired young Carey and by the time she was in the sixth grade she knew she wanted a life of exercise and good health. She was a little overweight back then and decided to get into a healthier mindset so she increased her activity, researched healthy eating online and in magazines, and started to learn.
Her main goal was to eat more fruit and less salty snacks, like chips. With the help of her mother she incorporated more vegetables into her diet and switched out sugar-laden desserts with Jell-o, fresh fruit, cups of fruit in their own juice, and water — lots of water.
Her parents and brother, a high school basketball player, were very supportive. Her mother gave her a calorie counter from the 1970s, “because that’s what they did on those days.”
She learned how to cook new recipes with her mom, and how to eat in moderation. The summer after sixth grade she incorporated an exercise regime every morning when ESPN broadcasted a two-hour program that taught her the importance of moving. She did low impact aerobics, weight training and abdominal exercises.
“Everyone in the house knew that every morning for those two hours not to bother me,” Stites said, adding that it was those exercise programs that instilled in her the idea to teach.
Stites danced her way through middle and high school and by the time she was 16 she was teaching aerobics on Lackland Air Force Base.
Everything in moderation
Stites role as a registered dietitian goes beyond that of a nutritionist. She works closely in hospital and clinical settings with Wellstone Health Partners/Seton Medical Center Harker Heights, working with patients to determine the best nutritional plan for their specific needs. She studies patients’ charts, doctors’ notes and lab work.
“Labs tell a lot of information, history, what’s going on with them, their struggle with chief complaints, their lifestyle,” Stites explained.
There is no one-size-fits-all nutritional plan, Stites said, reinforcing her belief in moderation and enhancing a person’s diet based on their health needs.
In fact, when she became a wife and mother she said at first she was very restrictive of her family’s diet, eating only chicken with rice and broccoli, egg whites for breakfast. She learned quickly that restricting wasn’t the answer to healthy eating.
“Have a healthy breakfast, a small lunch and dinner, a couple of healthy snacks,” she said. “I’ve never seen being restrictive work in the long run. Now we have a healthy framework. We still go out and eat but it’s portion control, and a lot of fruits and vegetables.”
Most people who come to see Stites for dietetic counseling know about their health issues. “I can pull out a lot of information from someone just by talking with them,” she said.
She continues to help others attain their goals of healthy eating and fitness through one-on-one counseling and at the Wellstone Clinic at Seton Medical Center in Harker Heights, where she works with patients who need nutritional direction based on their health needs.
“Carey’s approach definitely causes more patient compliance,” said Melissa Purl, marketing director for Seton Medical Center Harker Heights. “She approaches it softly, yet firmly, and patients are more likely to be compliant with their treatment programs because she makes it look fun and doable.”
Stites earned her bachelor of science degree in nutrition from Texas State University in San Marcos, followed by a 900-hour internship working in various medical arenas such as hospitals and clinics from 2001-2002 and earned a master’s of science in nutrition from Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, in 2002.
There is a lot of science involved with becoming a licensed dietitian and most people don’t know how much education is required, she commented.
“We take a lot of medical courses and medical nutrition therapy,” she said. Some of her studies included metabolism, pharmaceuticals and how they interact with patients’ critical care, specifics for diabetes and pediatrics, and four years of intensive chemistry classes. “When we go into a hospital setting we are very prepared.”
Purl said the service Carey provides is “invaluable, absolutely invaluable.”
“As health care advances and the years go by, dietitians are hard to find. They are highly valued in any health care organization and people have come to understand that what they eat and drink and you’ve heard the story, you are what you eat, it’s true,” Purl said. “People like Carey, with her education, are so hard to find.”