Nutrition alumna builds nutrition program, using food to serve others

For Katia Mora Ellis ’17, food is more than a daily necessity. It's her career — and a way to serve others.

Katia shopping for fruit at a produce standEllis, a graduate of SPU’s Food and Nutritional Sciences undergraduate program, is the founding nutrition director at Thorbeckes Nutrition, the in-house dietetics clinic of Thorbeckes Athletic Club in Chehalis, Washington. She started in October 2018, building the clinic from scratch.

She established a nutrition counseling program, working one-on-one with community members to develop meal plans and grocery lists based on their athletic goals, weight loss targets, or health challenges. She analyzed the gym’s food and supplement offerings and replaced them with healthy, natural alternatives.

She also provides free monthly nutrition seminars for the community and partners with a local nutrition program at Valley View Health Center aimed at decreasing youth obesity by teaching kids about nutrition.

“My career has been an area where I feel I’m serving, doing the calling of what God really wants me to do. He has shown me that this is the way: choosing this career,” Ellis said.

Ellis shopping for lettuce

Ellis grew up in Guanajuato, Mexico, moving to Centralia, Washington, with her family when she was 11 years old. At home, Ellis’s mom made everything from scratch. Cheese and tortillas were made in the kitchen. Milk came straight from their cow. “I watched my mother’s passion in the kitchen,” said Ellis. “That’s something I love now: making meals from scratch, finding natural resources, bringing the old ways back.”

Growing up with several food intolerances, Ellis also experienced firsthand the impact food has on health. She watched both her grandparents pass away primarily due to Type 2 diabetes. With this understanding, she saw a career in nutrition as a way to follow her love of food and serve others.

“My career has been an area where I feel I’m serving, doing the calling of what God really wants me to do.” —Katia Ellis

Ellis completed her associate’s degree at Centralia College before turning her sights to four-year universities. Seattle Pacific had what she was looking for: a thriving Food and Nutritional Sciences program, opportunities in the city for practical experience, and academics rooted in Christian faith.

“Katia’s passion set her apart in the classroom,” said Catalina Vlad-Ortiz, one of Ellis’s nutrition professors at SPU. “Nutrition touches so many things: justice, equality, healthcare access, living a good life. I could see that passion in Katia as she went through her studies. She wanted to be more than a dietician. She wanted to help the world.”

While a student at SPU, Ellis interned at Seattle Children’s Hospital, ranked one of the best children’s hospitals in the country. There, she worked alongside the dietician in the oncology ward, building unique meal plans for each patient to ensure they were getting enough nutrition and calories as they battled their illness.

“When receiving treatment, there is a danger you could die from cancer or from malnourishment caused by treatments,” said Ellis. “Our job was to prevent malnourishment.”

One of Ellis’s patients, an 8-year-old girl who shared Ellis’s Hispanic heritage, wasn’t eating, refused the hospital food offerings, and was about to be assigned tube feeding. But Ellis had an idea. Searching through the recipes of her childhood, she came across a recipe for arroz con leche.  She asked the hospital chef to whip up this dish of cinnamon, milk, and rice — and the little girl loved it.

“I understood her cultural shock of not having your typical foods around,” said Ellis. The girl’s lack of appetite cured, she continued eating and gained her weight back, eventually also recovering from cancer.

From then on, with each patient, Ellis tried to build cultural awareness before recommending food plans to patients. “I wanted them to feel like they were at home, even though they are living in a hospital,” she said. “Food has more life than people think. Food reflects culture and identity. Food is a way to connect with culture.”

After graduation, like all future registered dieticians, Ellis applied to a dietetic internship program, as required by the national Academy of Nutrition Dietetics. These are challenging and competitive programs, and most graduates apply to at least five.

Ellis applied to only one: the highly competitive dietetic internship at Seattle Mar Community Health Center. She was accepted to their small cohort of eight out of over 150 applicants.

“I laughed and I cried,” she said. “I had faith that God wanted me there and that he would open the door for me — and that’s exactly what happened. He showed me that nothing was impossible for him.”

Today, at Thorbeckes, Ellis works with a wide variety of patients. “I see a little bit of everything, from the serious athlete to the very ill person,” she said. She works with high school athletes, making sure they’re eating enough and the correct nutrition for their specific sport. She works with people battling Crohn’s disease, IBS, hypertension, diabetes. She works with elderly people adapting to new dietary needs. And she works with individuals who just want to make a change in their diet for the better.

“Every single patient has changed me and helped me learn,” she said. “Their stories motivate me and make this career rewarding.”

Ellis shopping for fruit at a produce stand

Photos by Kami Couch

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