Nutrition educator works to promote positive body image

By Katie Gardner
On November 1, 2013

Maria Caplan's life surrounds her as she sits in her office on the second floor of Health Services at the University of New Hampshire. A picture of her beloved rescue horse Kaia hangs on the wall above her desk. A scarlet mug shows the logo of Ohio State University, her alma mater. A frame displays a photo of her and new husband Edward on their wedding day last year. Most prominently, on the walls and on her desk are signs of her passion in life - nutrition and body image.

Caplan, a woman with dark hair and a youthful face, began working as the Nutrition Educator in the Office of Health Education and Promotion (OHEP) at UNH this semester and has loved it so far. After growing up in Stow, Ohio, a suburb of Akron, moving to New England was a big change. But as a lover of traveling, it's a move Caplan has enjoyed. She was drawn to UNH and Health Services because she loved the program and the way that it's run.

"I really loved that there was a position that touched on nutrition and body image because body image is a passion of mine," Caplan, who has her Master of Science in nutrition and is a registered dietician and licensed dietician, said. "I couldn't just do nutrition without the body image aspect."

Caplan developed this passion while completing her undergrad at Ohio State, where she majored in nutrition and minored in exercise science. She also taught aerobic and cycling classes in addition to her role as a yoga instructor. She was on the university triathlon team as well.

Caplan didn't always have this passion for nutrition and health, though, and she didn't even enter college with a big interest in it. During her freshman year, when her roommates and all of the girls around her were trying to look certain ways, she fell prey to peer pressure.

"[My roommates] put a lot of pressure on the way they looked and that kind of rubbed off on me," Caplan said.

Caplan said that she developed a negative body image along with many unhealthy habits. No one realized just how serious her issue was until her sophomore year when it landed her in the emergency room, though.

"I actually almost died from what I was doing to my body," Caplan said.

The experience was eye opening for Caplan, and after it she realized that she wanted to pursue nutrition and health not only as a career, but also as a lifestyle. She said it inspired her to be the advocate that she is today. However, recovering from such a traumatic experience wasn't easy. 

"I think as far as body image issues go, I think recovery is a life long process," Caplan said.

Due to the fact that she wasn't too far along in her eating disorder and ended up getting help quickly, it didn't take long to recover medically. Psychologically, it wasn't until she was in graduate school at Kent State that she began to feel OK with who she was. That's not to say that everything has been perfect. 

"I don't know anyone who wakes up every single morning and can look in the mirror and say 'I love every single aspect of myself every single day,'" Caplan said.

Wanting a healthier lifestyle and a more positive body image weren't the only things that Caplan realized throughout her struggle. As she looked at her own mother, she realized that her negative self-esteem might have stemmed from how she was raised.

"It was just something when you're younger, you just think that's how women are supposed to think," Caplan said. "They're supposed to judge themselves and they're supposed to always criticize themselves on how they look."

Caplan said that her mother has always struggled with her weight and that she was an overeater who "medicated with food." As she began to educate herself about her own issues, Caplan realized that her mother had an eating disorder as well. Caplan said that being able to talk openly and honestly about their issues together has definitely made them closer.

"By me getting educated in it, it's really helped her as well through some of her issues," Caplan said.

Now that she's at UNH, Caplan is helping students with their issues as well. She said that she even sees young people who, like herself, have been negatively affected by their parents' eating disorders. One thing that she does through her work with Health Services is to oversee two student-run groups on campus, SPIN (Students Promoting Information about Nutrition) and ECM (Eating Concern Mentors).

The two co-leaders of ECM, Christine Luciano and Crystal Cascio, both love having Caplan advise their group, through which they offer support and guidance to students with eating disorders. They both said that Caplan's passion is what stands out most about her.

"She is so fresh and excited and enthusiastic about everything that we do and so supportive of our new ideas and really trying to promote our goal on campus which is to promote having a positive body image and changing the culture," Luciano said.

Cascio agreed about Caplan's willingness to help the group.

"My favorite thing about Maria is her open-mindedness," Cascio said. "Maria is always coming up with new ways to do things and providing suggestions as to how to improve our group." 

Caplan also just worked on the annual Fat Talk Free week, which is an international campaign that looks to promote positive body image. She hopes that, through the campaign, women will realize that the media and advertisements only show an unrealistic ideal that is unattainable.

"If one woman on this campus can change her mind about pursuing that ideal and decide that she's fine the way she is, I would be happy with that," Caplan said.

A big campaign such as Fat Talk Free Week isn't new to Caplan and she's already had experience in supporting and educating a campus on this sort of issue. Before coming to UNH, Caplan worked at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where she helped with a "Love Your Body" month.

When she isn't working on big campaigns, Caplan helps with other events at UNH and helps students in Health Services. Outside of work she spends her time relaxing by riding her horse, a lifelong passion of hers.

She entered college majoring in large animal veterinary medicine and, after switching to nutrition, decided to keep horseback riding as a hobby. She urges all students to find an activity that they're passionate about to help them unwind.Caplan has had many different and unique experiences in her life, all of which have shaped her into the person she is today. She has shown that someone can take what seems like a negative experience, and turn it into what fuels a passion in life.

According to the ECMs she advises, Caplan manages everything well and goes beyond what is expected. Luciano said that Caplan is superwoman and when Cascio described her, she chose a similar phrase.

"We always kid around and say she's 'wonder woman,' but in our eyes she truly is," Cascio said. "We greatly admire her."

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