As Beth Cotter ’11 navigated her first year at Notre Dame she found that she was being pushed out of her comfort zone and struggled to adapt. A self-described perfectionist with an intense course load, she grappled with with low self-esteem and low confidence, which manifested as a disordered relationship with food and emotional eating.
The experience opened her eyes to struggles others face with food.
“I think that this is a very common experience for many students who are navigating their own health at the beginning of their college careers, yet often isn’t discussed,” Cotter says.
During her senior year, the Biology major ended up working on a group project dealing with nutrition. That, coupled with her earlier experience, helped put her on the path to where she is today: working as a Registered Dietitian who helps others with food-related issues, including eating disorders.
“Some of the coolest things that I’ve been able to see are people changing their relationships with food and showing themselves gratitude, kindness, and self-compassion, all of which go beyond eating and their food choices,” Cotter says. “Once they are able to start working on those components, then their relationship with food shifts. So it’s been really humbling to help people walk through that journey as much as I can.”
Cotter’s path continued after her graduation from Notre Dame, when she decided to pursue a Master’s of Public Health degree from the University of Michigan, where she graduated in 2014. From there she pursued several rotations as part of a seven-month dietetic internship. One of her rotations, at an adult treatment center, further reinforced her passion for making a difference.
“I fell in love with that treatment center and their approach to healing from an eating disorder,” she says. “It included self-compassion, self-awareness, and a relationship with food beyond food choices itself. The three weeks that I interned there I did yoga with the clients every morning, then got to participate in nutrition education groups and help with meal support. So I feel like it was one of those moments where my mind was blown, and I thought, ‘wow, I didn’t really know this existed, but I think I’m really interested in this.’”
Shortly after the internship, Cotter became a Registered Dietitian and took a job at the center where she’d earlier done a rotation. She worked there for two years before deciding to take on a new adventure and accepting a position at another adult eating disorder treatment center in California in 2017.
In January, she started her current role as a Clinical Dietitian at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. There, she helps adolescents who are dealing with everything from eating disorders to weight management to preparation for bariatric surgery, and she runs an eating disorder clinic for Stanford students.
Eating disorders can include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, Cotter says, and people may deal with a variety of other food-related issues such as orthorexia, which is essentially an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Her goal is to help patients reframe how they think about food and understand that all food is healthy and nourishes the body.
“Often, an eating disorder is something that someone has been using as a coping mechanism for a long time without knowing any other way to dealt with stress, trauma, or challenges in their life,” Cotter says, “so being able to create a space where they feel comfortable talking about that deep connection and their relationship with food is really important.”
As she continues helping others navigate their way to a healthier relationship with food, Cotter says, she’s open to the idea of pursuing a Ph.D. at some point that would allow her to focus on strategies to help prevent eating disorders in young people.
“I really connect with that population and see how prevention of eating disorders could be impactful at both the high school and college ages,” she says. “That’s definitely something I’m interested in, going forward.”