We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Laura Acosta to our Discover FSHN Series! Dr. Acosta is an instructional associate professor and undergraduate coordinator in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at the University of Florida. Her teaching interests include clinical nutrition, Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT), nutrition counseling, and fitness and wellness.
Dr. Acosta is a recipient of the UF Undergraduate Teacher of the Year award, a university-wide award that recognizes excellence, innovation, and effectiveness in teaching. In 2023, she won the Outstanding Dietitian of the Year award from the Florida Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This award recognizes Dr. Acosta’s commitment to excellence as well as her outstanding leadership and service to the profession of dietetics.
In this feature, Dr. Acosta tells us about her early interest in health and nutrition, shares what she believes the public should know about dietetics, and reveals the name of her favorite singer!
What inspired you to pursue nutrition and dietetics?
My mom is a registered dietitian, so I grew up with an appreciation for health and nutrition instilled from an early age. As I became a teen, I developed an interest in improving my personal fitness. I remember doing fitness assessments in P.E. class and being the slowest person in the class for the “mile run” and the least flexible person on the “sit and reach”. I decided then that I wanted to change that, and I started going to the gym with my mom, stretching every day, and I joined the cross-country team at school.
It was grueling, hard work, but at the end of the season, I got an award for “most improved” on the team and was able to run a mile in under seven minutes. I felt such a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy from having worked hard to achieve a goal for myself. I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in wellness and inspire others to set and achieve bold goals for their health and fitness. My dream was to eventually open a holistic fitness center that provided both exercise and nutrition services.
Tell me about your path to UF.
Around the time I graduated from high school, my dad retired from the military after a 28-year career in the Air Force. We were living in New York, and I was tired of the bitter-cold New York winters. Florida sounded warm, and I had never seen a live palm tree before, so I decided I needed a tropical climate in my life.
I moved to Gainesville by myself, found a small apartment over on Tower Road, and got my first job at Taco Bell for $5.15 an hour. I also taught a few step aerobics classes at a nearby gym and just tried to make ends meet for a year while I established my Florida residency. After that first year, I applied to UF as a Florida resident, and… the rest is history!
Twenty-two years later, I am still in Gainesville. I graduated from my undergraduate program, completed the MS-DI program, worked as a clinical dietitian at Shands Hospital, got married, opened my fitness center, sold my fitness center after six years, and had two babies (Jarod and Duncan, now aged ten and six). In addition, I traveled on speaking tours as a workshop presenter, and, since 2014, I do what I love every day: teaching at UF!
Would you share some of the recent projects you have worked on?
Last year I finished my Doctor of Clinical Nutrition (DCN) degree through Rutgers University. My research was on epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), the most abundant and bioactive catechin in green tea. I found that postmenopausal women with elevated blood pressure or hypertension were able to significantly reduce their systolic blood pressure by taking a high-dose green tea extract supplement every day for a year. I also found that certain genotypes for one of the enzymes that metabolize EGCG could put an individual at risk for hepatotoxicity (liver damage) when they take high-dose green tea extract supplements.
On the teaching side, I have been working with colleagues in the department (Dr. Zhiyong Cheng and Dr. Diana Taft) to develop a new Quest 2 course called Personalized Nutrition. I’m excited for us to teach it beginning in the fall!
What classes do you teach?
Currently, my regular line-up of courses includes Medical Nutrition Therapy 1 and 2 (DIE4245, DIE4246), Nutrition and Disease 1 (HUN4445), Nutrition Counseling and Communication (DIE4436), and Feeding the Planet (IDS2935, a Quest 2 course).
What do you believe is the most important fact the public should know about nutrition and dietetics?
I wish people knew that registered dietitians are not the “food police”! Yes, we know a ton about food, nutrients, metabolism, etc., but we are not judging what you’re eating, and we don’t need you to justify all the items in your cart if we run into you at the grocery store. We are foodies at heart! We love and appreciate all types of foods and how they harmonize in a balanced body, mind, and soul.
What do you like to do in your free time?
So many things! I love music, singing, scrapbooking, fashion, listening to Dimash (the greatest singer in the world!), long conversations with friends, eating ice cream, visiting my family in Colorado, teaching spin classes at my house, spending time with my husband and kids, and dreaming about shoes and handbags.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
If you had asked me when I was in college what I imagined I’d be doing now, never in a million years would I have said I’d be in academia. But I am so glad life took me down this path, and I feel blessed every day to get to make an impact doing something I love!
P.S. The Discover FSHN Series highlights the unique experiences of UF’s Food Science and Human Nutrition students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Want to read more about the amazing work going on in the FSHN department? See our previous features below (click on arrows to expand):
Shannon Mai, Dietetics
Alex Colon, Dietetics and Jenny Duong, Food Science
Jackie Shannon, Nutritional Sciences
Jennifer Jordan, Food Science
Lily Tucciarone, Dietetics
Tim Cassella, Nutritional Sciences
Kate Mullis, Dietetics
Savanna Curtis, Food Science (M.S.)
Carley Rusch and Matthew Beke, Nutritional Sciences (Ph.D.)
Alexa Hosey, Dietetics (MS/DI)
Vicnie Leandre, Food Science (M.S.)
Rufus Theophilus, Nutritional Sciences (Ph.D.)
Amber Fritsche, Dietetics (MS/DI)
Amy Jones, Food Science (Ph.D.)
Melissa Perez Santana, Food Science (M.S.)
Jeena Endter, Dietetics (MS/DI)
Dr. Naim Montazeri, Food Science/Food Virology
Dr. Jeanette Andrade, Dietetics
Dr. Zhiyong Cheng, Nutritional Sciences
Dr. Juan Andrade Laborde, Global Nutrition
Dr. Razieh Farzad, Food Science
Dr. Beth Gankofskie, Dietetics
Dr. Anne Mathews, Nutritional Sciences
Dr. Diana Taft, Nutritional Sciences
Dr. Boce Zhang, Food Science/Food Microbiology
Dr. Cora Best, Nutritional Sciences
Dr. Katherine Thompson-Witrick, Food Science
Dr. Rebecca Gould, Dietetics, Postdoctoral Research
Dr. Becca Solch, Nutritional Sciences, Postdoctoral Research
Hannah Cooper, Dietetics, Private Practice
Dr. Richie Li, Food Science, Product Development
Doctor Brian Barrow, Nutritional Sciences, Medicine/Physician
Luciano Junoy, Food Science, Product Development
Carlin Dixon, Dietetics and Professional Dance