Breanne Wilhite, MPH ’19, wants to promote healthy lifestyle interventions in children that are mindful of weight stigma and don’t exacerbate eating disorder behaviors.
May 21, 2019—For Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health student Breanne Wilhite, public health in the classroom met real life in rural India. She was there for a Winter Session course, during which students consulted with community programs focused on non-communicable disease prevention and mental health promotion. Working with local people who were intimately involved in guiding the programs, Wilhite had her eyes opened to the possibilities of public health as a collaborative process rather than a top-down prescription.
“I think it’s so important in public health that when we’re creating these interventions, and evaluating policies and programs, we’re working with and not above communities. We need to remember that we are equal to these people,” she said. In her own work in social and behavioral sciences, Wilhite sees psychological health as a vital part of any health behavior change. In the PhD program she’s starting this fall at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, she wants to focus her research on overall wellness rather than weight loss.
“I believe we are going to end up doing more harm than good if we continue to constantly focus on weight as an outcome in nutrition interventions. We need to stop putting out the message that there is a perfect body or perfect BMI to achieve,” she said. “I want to find ways to promote healthy eating and physical activity, in a way that is mindful of weight stigma, and doesn’t exacerbate eating disorder behaviors.” That’s particularly important when working with children and adolescents, who she plans to focus her attention on, she said. “The outcomes should be other health indicators—both physical and mental.”
Wilhite grew up in a healthy, active family in North Carolina. She recalls her mom, a vegetarian, bringing her and her siblings on long hikes with the dogs, and into the kitchen for cooking experiments with vegetables from the family garden. With this early grounding in healthy living, combined with a love of science and an ease at connecting with people, medicine seemed like a natural career path. She entered the pre-med track as an undergraduate at Wake Forest University, and prepared her path for medical school, but her plans took a turn shortly after graduation.
After graduation, she worked as a research assistant in a Nutritional Neuroscience lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There, she managed two clinical trials and various other projects focused on the effects of fatty acid supplementation and dietary changes on physical and mental health outcomes, including chronic pain and ADHD symptoms. She worked directly with participants, getting to know them and their challenges and successes as they moved through the trials. The experience sparked a love for research, and also left Wilhite wanting to pursue work that would allow her to connect with people and have an impact on the health of communities.
Since coming to Harvard Chan School in 2017 as a Gohar and Valad Valadian Fellow, Wilhite has learned tools for translating research into policy action. She worked on a number of projects with the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders (STRIPED), based at Harvard Chan School and Boston Children’s Hospital, including a study of the effects of digitally altered photos on body image and eating disorders, and as an advocate during STRIPED’s annual lobbying day in Congress.
“Bree brings to all her work in and out of the classroom a wonderful energy and enthusiasm for both learning and making positive change for communities,” said STRIPED Director S. Bryn Austin, professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “Her leadership in evidence-based policy advocacy to combat weight discrimination and prevent eating disorders skillfully blends her keen interest in rigorous nutrition science with her deep commitment to health equity and redressing social wrongs.”
Wilhite’s work also includes promoting breastfeeding to low-income mothers during her practicum last summer with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program. And this past year, she switched to part-time study so that she could take advantage of the Pathways Internship Program with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General in Boston, serving on the team that conducts national evaluations of The U.S. Food and Drug Administration programs and policies.
Between work and classes, Wilhite is also planning her own wedding, which she’ll be squeezing in this summer between degree programs. She sees work-life balance as an important component of wellness, even if it’s a skill that she’s still working to master. Ultimately, she’d like to be a role model for balancing a successful career in research with family life.
“I want to be a working mom,” she said. “It’s one of the most difficult roles you can have in life, and it’s my dream.”
Photo: Sarah Sholes