Aaron Owens Mayhew, MS, RDN, CD
for something nutrishus
Aaron initially reached out to a request of mine looking for dietitians with non-traditional careers. She said "My focus may be of interest as it’s not one RDs are taught about in school" and was absolutely right. Her current clients' concerns are unique as she actually has to consider the weight of the food. She's been busy launching her business and doing backpacking herself, but I'm so happy to share more about her new career and niche with you. She took a brave leap into private practice and faces unique challenges with that change, but I'm sure we'll see great things come from Aaron as she 'counts the calories so her clients don't have to'.
Why did you become a RD?
I stumbled upon the profession while taking college classes in preparation for physical therapy school. After growing up in small town Kentucky, it wasn’t until then that I knew what a dietitian was. The more I studied nutrition, the more I realized it was a better fit for me than the physical therapy route. Although, I have continued to be closely involved with physical therapists as a chronically injured athlete much like I was as a child.
What area of dietetics do you work in?
I’ve created my own niche and job title as a “Backcountry Dietitian”. I work with a wide variety of individuals that spend time adventuring outdoors whether that be hiking, backpacking, packrafting, horse camping, backcountry hunting and more. My job is to help outdoor explorers meal plan for their adventures in a way that allows them to eat a nutritious diet while keeping the weight of the food as light as possible. The method that I’ve created is called “Ultralight Meal Planning for Outdoor Explorers”. Food is heavy and is often the first thing to go when one’s pack is too heavy or there isn’t enough storage. Therefore, my work is focused on making sure outdoor adventurers pack adequate fuel so that they stay strong and recover well throughout the course of their trips. I also write trail food cookbooks (Ultralight Recipes for Outdoor Explorers Cookbook) including the ultralight recipes that I use myself and with my clients.
How would you explain what you do?
I talk to my clients about their goals for their upcoming outdoor adventures, how food has been incorporated into previous adventures and how well did the previous plan for work them. We then talk about how to make changes to maximize nutrition and reduce food weight. I have a professionally built meal planning database that generates meal plans based on the data and food selections that I enter for the client. Only the most nutritionally complex foods that give the most bang for the buck are included in meal plans. For example, white rice, instant potatoes and tuna fish which are backcountry cooking staples are not included in my meal planning method. They offer very little nutrition for the weight. Instead, chickpea pasta, dehydrated beans, freeze dried and dehydrated produce and healthy fats are used. Each meal plan that is generated is completely unique to the individual based on food preferences, dietary restrictions, budget, preferred meal prep techniques, time available to meal prep and trip logistics. Following the meal plan development phase, I assist clients with putting the plans into action by providing tips on how to be time efficient in the kitchen and in the backcountry. For clients that are mailing food to resupply points, I provide tips on how to make this process more efficient and cost effective. Ongoing consultation is also available throughout the course of the trip if the client begins to gain or lose excessive amounts of weight, experience chronic fatigue and/or slowed recovery time, etc. In the future, I will offer pre-made meal plans for purchase on my website that are a more affordable option for those interested in ultralight meal planning but not interested in the personalized level of service. In the future I also hope to create learning modules sharing many of the meal planning tips that I’ve learned from personal experience while adventuring in the backcountry.
What are your ‘typical’ daily/weekly tasks?
Social media engagement takes up a lot of my time. The first ninety minutes of my day are dedicated to responded to posts, engaging with followers and posting new information on my Instagram and Facebook accounts. Later this year I plan to focus on growing my Pinterest account to redirect traffic to my blog posts hopefully resulting in increased cookbook and/or meal planning package purchases. As you would expect, I spend a significant amount of time in the kitchen experimenting with new recipes and improving upon old ones. I also spend a great deal of time networking with other dietitians and partnering with individuals in the backcountry industry by discussing cross promotion, giving talks, participating in podcasts, giveaways, etc. Ten to twelve hour days are normal for me and I love it! I’m my own boss and have combined my two passions, outdoor adventure and food.
What has been your career path?
Prior to my new career, I was a pediatric dietitian specializing in Children with Special Health Care Needs (CSHCN) for almost sixteen years. I worked in the home for the birth to three program, at the State level with policy development, neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) as a clinical dietitian, outpatient setting for CSHCN clinic, lipid clinic outpatient dietitian and lastly a ketogenic dietitian for children with epilepsy. My career path changed drastically when I quit my job as a ketogenic dietitian and started hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on my fortieth birthday, 3/26/17. Let’s just call it a mid-life crisis and it was a doozy! A little over a year later, I’m now an entrepreneur and small business owner (Backcountry Foodie LLC) with amazing opportunities on the horizon. I couldn’t be happier!
What advanced education or special training do you have?
I have a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition from the University of Kentucky and a master’s degree from Tufts University where I also attended the Frances Stern Nutrition Center dietetic internship. I also completed a CSHCN traineeship at the University of Washington Center for Human Development and Disability (CHDD). In regards to my new career, I have a lifelong list of experiences as an athlete and well over two thousand miles of backcountry travel experience to support my work as a backcountry dietitian. I do, however, look forward to enrolling in formal sports nutrition continuing education to further my knowledge.
In an ideal world, what does the industry look like 5 years from now?
That’s a really great question that I don’t have a good answer to especially now that I work with such a niche population. My hope is that we’ll see less commercially processed freeze-dried foods and more meals prepared at home or by grass roots companies that use better quality products.
What misinformation about RDs would you like to clear up?
The age-old nutritionist is the same thing as a dietitian misconception.
What would you like people to know about RDs?
That we don’t tell our clients to eat fruits and vegetables and send them on their way. I’ve listened to a number of adults assume this about our profession and choose to not seek out nutrition advice because of it. I would like for folks to know that we do listen to their needs and make suggestions based on what makes the most sense for their life in that moment.
What are challenges you encounter as a RD?
As a niche business owner, I’m having a hard time with potential clients undervaluing my work as there are no comparisons. My current meal planning packages are priced well below the amount of time required to complete them. With time I expect to be able to charge what I deserve for the time spent as clients thus far have greatly appreciated my work.
What do people think that you do for a living?
This is another great question as my husband didn’t fully understand what I do until recently. My meal planning method is quite complex despite the term “meal planning” sounding simplistic. I created a rather robust database including a number of calculations taking into account the client’s macronutrient needs, food preferences, dietary restrictions, volume of water required to prepare the meals, volume of oils to be packed in addition to the meals, cooking styles and total weight of each meal plan. The meal plan isn’t complete until all of the stars align meeting the client’s goals with each meal plan completely unique from the rest. Most assume that they are purchasing pre-made meal plans which isn’t the case at all.
What are you passionate about in dietetics?
In my particular niche, I want to see long distance backpackers fulfill their dreams by completing thru hikes without malnutrition, fatigue and hiker hunger due to poor diet being the concerns that they are now.
What tip(s) would you give to our readers?
If you ever feel like you’re in a rut, don’t be afraid to take the leap and try something new even if it scares you. You never know what you’re capable of unless you try.
More about Aaron:
Facebook: Backcountry Foodie
YouTube: Backcountry Foodie