Nourishing health

Susan McLeod talks with Giselle Roberts about nutrition, mental health and the microbiome, and inspiring students to think differently about food

Susan McLeod’s career has a touch of serendipity to it. She started off in hospitality as a reservations manager for a chain of serviced apartments. Put simply, she didn’t love it. Then a career pause to have children set her on an entirely different path. “My second daughter had an allergy,” McLeod says, “and I investigated alternative diets to help her. I was at home with the kids and decided to embark on further study. So, I enrolled in a nutrition degree.”

That decision changed McLeod’s life. What followed? A stint at one of Australia’s most prestigious restaurants, first in human resources, then in product development and compliance. It is an opportunity McLeod created after approaching the head chef and owner for advice.

“At that point, I had almost qualified for my degree, and told my boss I wanted to work as a nutritionist,” she says. “He responded by challenging me to come up with ideas. I pitched something on product development, food safety and compliance, and he liked it. Suddenly, I found myself responsible for getting approvals from the City of Melbourne to serve red kangaroo on the menu, which was not allowed at the time. I developed all the protocols, negotiated with councils, managed all the tests and product labelling. That is how my journey began.”

A phone call from a La Trobe academic about a book – “the discipline lead wanted to interview my boss, but I became the point of contact” – led to an invitation to develop a subject for the fledgling, and highly successful, Bachelor of Food and Nutrition through Online Universities Australia. It, in turn, led to a full-time teaching focused position in the School of Allied Health, Human Services and Sport and a recent appointment as Course Coordinator of Food and Nutrition.

McLeod couldn’t be happier: she is animated by life, with incredible dedication to her students and an unrivalled curiosity for food science. As part of her role, McLeod takes Australia’s future nutritionists into La Trobe’s commercial teaching kitchens, helping them to understand everything from food chemistry and food production, , to the function of macronutrients and micronutrients in health and disease.

“In first year, we start by asking students to identify 100 foods,” McLeod explains. “We present them with lentils and quinoa, fruits and vegetables, along with some more exotic foods. We see if they can differentiate between corn flour and plain flour. We build their food knowledge one step at a time.”

Later years focus on gastronomy and food modification. In one subject, globally focused cooking classes are augmented by discussions on the social and public health dimensions of nutrition. In another, students puree foods to understand the delicate balance between texture modification and nutritional value. “Pureed foods are being served in our hospitals and aged care facilities,” says McLeod, “so we ask our students to puree fish and liquid. You can imagine how disgusting that is, but it gets them thinking about what doesn’t work, and challenges them to explore alternatives that offer nourishment and enjoyment.”

McLeod is also pushing her own boundaries by embarking on a PhD that examines the relationship between nutrition, mental health and the human microbiome. “Almost 50% of all Australians experience mental health issues at some point in their lives,” she explains. “While we know that nutrition can make a difference, we still don’t fully understand how or why.”

“Mental health issues can be debilitating. They impact the individual, their family and friends, and every year the problem grows. I am exploring how prebiotics and probiotics might help to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, and how the gut responds to these bioactive food components to influence a person’s mental health. I am utterly fascinated by this. If we better understand the relationship between nutrition and depression, we can identify new strategies to improve mental health and wellbeing – and I love the idea that we can change things through our choices.”

McLeod lives by that mantra – “I am always searching for the positive change that comes from new discoveries or opportunities,” she says – which, in 2020, led to her involvement in Taste of Tomorrow, La Trobe’s National Science Week event exploring what nutritious foods we might be eating in the future and what we can do to make food production more sustainable.

“There was so much passion for the project,” McLeod says. “We had scientists, nutritionists, psychologists and ecologists engaged in the discussion. It was engrossing. As academics, we often get stuck in discipline bubbles, and I found myself learning so much more about food, sustainability, and diversity. As part of the event, we distributed over 900 free boxes of future foods, and had inspiring conversations that included everyone from high school students to academics. In that process, we hopefully shone a light on the power of knowledge and research.”

McLeod has cast her net wide and encourages her students to do the same. “From food blogging to policy advice and product development, there are so many nutrition pathways out there for graduates,” McLeod enthuses. “It’s exciting to have had that journey and to have found my own success. I am now passing that knowledge on to my students. It’s a privilege to share my passion for food with them and to be able to tell them, ‘Being a nutritionist is an amazing career.’ It really is.”