Nourishing a healthy lifestyle

October 25, 2013

Nutrition professor Laura Christoph in the classroom. HCC professor Laura Christoph leading a spinning class in the Bartley Center.

Laura Christoph ran seven miles a day in high school and weighed only 90 pounds.

While competing in a race as a senior at Falmouth High School, she felt something go "click," and she walked off the track. She had a stress fracture in her left hip. Christoph was diagnosed with osteopenia, a condition in which bone mineral density is lower than normal. Her doctor said her bones looked like those of an octogenarian.

This, because she'd inadvertently been starving herself.

"It was a fantastic wake-up call. I didn't understand that I needed to eat healthy food and fuel my body with necessary nutrients," said the 31-year-old In the classroom and in the community, HCC professor Laura Christoph pushes good nutrition.  Christoph. "I started working with a nutritionist. She taught me how to nourish my body and eat well. That was a huge transition in the way I thought about food."

What Christoph learned also nourished her career path, leading her to conduct research on bone density and weight monitoring at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she earned her bachelor's degree in nutrition and a doctoral degree in public health with a concentration in nutrition.

She has worked for seven years as an associate professor of Health Fitness and Nutrition at Holyoke Community College, guiding health and nutrition students and serving as a liaison for community health in the region.

"HCC is a fantastic place for me because I can write nutrition curriculum and teach it to people and feel like I'm really effective," she said. "I just love what I do."

Still an athlete, Christoph is 5'5'' and weighs about 130 pounds. She said the mistake she made in high school was thinking that to be an elite runner she had to be rail thin and sinewy. She was focused on media images that seemed to dictate what a runner should look like.

 "I wasn't respecting my body type," she said.

Now, she educates students so they understand they can still be fantastic athletes, even if their bodies don't match the stereotype for that sport. "I take a lot of time to make sure that I give athletes different examples of people who are successful in their sport, people who have all body types, so they have various mentors," said Christoph, who went by the name Laura Hutchinson until she was married last summer.

She talks with the members of high school and college athletic teams in the region about hard stuff - anorexia, bulimia, and, above all, the fact that good nutrition is the best option for optimal performance.

In 2003, in Providence, R.I., and again in 2004, in San Francisco, Calif., Christoph presented her research on bone density and weight monitoring before gatherings of the American College of Sports Medicine Conference.

"My mission in life is to help other people reach their potential and nourish their bodies," she said. "It's meaningful work. I'm really enthusiastic about spreading the message and helping other people learn how to take care of themselves."

Christoph's influence doesn't stop at fitness. She has cast herself in many roles in the area of community health, both on campus and across the region.

She serves on the interim leadership team for the Holyoke Food and Fitness Policy Council, an organization funded by the Kellogg Foundation that is working to improve Holyoke's community, fitness and food domains. She organizes volunteers for the South Hadley Food Pantry, and has collaborated with a Smith College program for future coaches, passing on positive coaching skills.

Christoph is also an occasional guest on Channel 22's Mass Appeal, speaking on matters of nutrition and sharing healthy recipes. 

Patti Mantia, chair of the HCC Health, Fitness and Nutrition Department, said Christoph is dedicated to the craft of teaching and always finds a creative mechanism for imparting knowledge.

Instead of just lecturing students on nutrition, for instance, she takes them to the grocery store and teaches them how to read labels and gauge what products are healthy; instead of lecturing on the pros and cons of sugar, she had her students debate whether sugar should be legal.

Last fall, Christop taught a Linked Course at HCC -- "Just Food" -- combining English and Nutrition. For one assignment, she challenged students to go an entire day without eating any foods containing added sugar and then writing about how they felt.

"She wants her students to experience the learning," said Mantia.

"As a colleague, I am inspired by her.  She is enthusiastic and energetic. She consistently contributes within the classroom, on campus and in the community," Mantia said.

Mantia sat on the hiring committee that brought Christoph to campus. "I knew from the moment I met her that we had a keeper in our presence," she adds. "Laura has a genuine goodness about her."

Even with Christoph's busy schedule, she makes time to work out and maintain her physical fitness. It's in her DNA. Her mother was a competitive swimmer, her father a longtime football player and coach.

"I do it all for stress relief and time to myself," she said. "I'm an introvert by nature, so I need my alone time to collect myself. As a professor and a person, I'm really involved in the community. I don't usually get time to myself unless it's scheduled into the day."

She regularly participates in cross fit, a form of activity that combines weight lifting with other exercise. She rows with Holyoke Rows (a Holyoke nonprofit that runs youth and adult learn-to-row programs) and coaches Mount Holyoke Community rowing. She also teaches a spinning class at the Bartley Center.

She still loves to run, on her own and competitively with the Western Mass Distance Project, a club for post-collegiate distance runners.

The running and the rowing, she says, are "my nice, peaceful time with nature."

Story by Janice Beetle

Photos by Don Treeger: (Left) Laura Christoph teaches a Linked Course at HCC called "Just Food." (Right) Christoph leads a spinning class at the Bartley Center. 


Holyoke Community College
303 Homestead Ave. Holyoke, MA 01040