Episode 15: Nutrition Communicator Amber Pankonin intersects agriculture, consumer confidence, branding





Dietitians have been dealing with fake news forever, but Amber Pankonin, Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Communicator, accepted the challenge. She works as a solopreneur, consulting with farmers and producers about how to message and brand their products to not only resonate with consumers, but to create healthier lifestyles. A true rural maverick, Amber has created a community through her recipe site Stirlist.com and her podcast for entrepreneurs Healthy Under Pressure.

In this episode she talks with Dr. Connie about the challenges and solutions facing dietitians, farmers and consumers thanks to increasing access to information. She passionately encourages collaboration and individualization, explores the future of nutrigenomics and emboldens other entrepreneurs to take the plunge.

“I remember my mom and dad telling me that I needed to appreciate everything that was on my plate, because a farmer worked really hard to produce that.”
Amber Pankonin, RD
Nutrition Communicator, Stirlist.com; Host, Healthy Under Pressure Podcast

About Amber


Amber Pankonin is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Nutrition Communications Consultant based in Lincoln, Neb. She shares her love for food and nutrition at Stirlist.com and hosts Healthy Under Pressure, a podcast that highlights the stories and struggles of entrepreneurs and busy people learning to live healthy under pressure. Amber is also a local radio and television personality, serving as a health and wellness commentator each week on KFOR and 1011 News in Lincoln, Neb. This year she is serving as the Marketing Chair for the Nebraska Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an adjunct instructor.


Mentioned In The Episode


Bold Voices Student Segment

We are proud to provide this week’s Bold Voices segment at the 15:00 mark of this episode to feature Trevor Harlow, senior political science and environmental studies major from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Trevor hails from Waterloo, Neb., and in his interview he emphasizes the need for perspective.

I think it’s really important and really critical to look at those different societies, those different ways of living in those different communities based upon the urban and rural pipeline, and see how they interact and how they affect the overall functioning of a society,” he says.


Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. Joining us today is Amber Pankonin. Amber is a registered dietician, recipe developer, and nutrition communicator based in Lincoln, Nebraska, welcome to the podcast, Amber.

Amber Pankonin: Thanks for having me.

Dr. Connie: I should say you’re also a fellow podcaster, Healthy Under Pressure, which everybody should be listening to.

Amber Pankonin: Thank you so much, I know we’ve talked about podcasting, it’s a fun thing to do.

Dr. Connie: It is fun, and we’re so excited to have people tuned in here to listen to what you have to say, and I would like to just dive into a little bit more background, tell us a little bit about your business.

Amber Pankonin: I’m a registered dietician and nutrition communicator. Healthy Under Pressure highlights the stories and struggles of entrepreneurs and busy people who are trying to stay healthy, under pressure. I’m doing a lot of recipe development, and also brand work. So I create messages for brands and companies who really need help getting those messages to consumers in terms of how food is produced and how we can make meals at home that are simple, and easy. I love producing recipes like that, for busy people like ourselves, that we can just whip up in minutes and have on the table in 30 minutes or less.

Dr. Connie: That really makes you my hero, I have to say.


Dr. Connie: Because we do, a lot of us need that. Tell us a little bit too now, what got you interested in this? And what do you do, we know kind of a little bit about what you do, but tell us a little bit more about being a dietician and some of the avenues people take in this space.

Amber Pankonin: Absolutely, so I became interested in dietetics because I studied nutrition science during college, I actually thought I was going to maybe go to PA school.

Dr. Connie: Oh really?

Amber Pankonin: But I took a little detour and spent some time living in DC, I came back to Lincoln, I worked as a cook for about a year and I realized, I think I really want to pursue dietetics, which is when I applied to the internship at the University of Nebraska, and really went that route, and what I learned is that dieticians practice in a number of different areas. So we find dieticians who are in the academic space, so maybe they’re teaching, or they’re doing research. We see dieticians who are working in the school system, so maybe they’re planning menus, or they’re working in the kitchen in terms of staffing the kitchen. We also see that in the clinical side, too. So we have dieticians who are managing hospital kitchens, and managing employees, and then we see those dieticians who are actually working alongside the nurses and the doctors, and all of the different practitioners who are managing nutrition for a patient, and that’s actually what I did for a number of years before I stepped into more of a communicator role.

Dr. Connie: A lot of times when we hear a word like dietician we’re not quite clear about what it is, let alone all the different career paths you can take with it.

Amber Pankonin: Right, right, well the first, four, what? The first three letters, excuse me, of the word diet, are die.


Dr. Connie: Good point!

Amber Pankonin: So it doesn’t always sound appealing, and a lot of people think dieticians are food police, and I swear we’re not!


Amber Pankonin: I love food, which is why I’m a dietician, so I love talking about food, I love talking about how to prepare food, and really talking about how food nourishes us and can really set us up for success.

Dr. Connie: Okay, I know also you teach at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, so tell us about your classes that you’re teaching as well, and why you do that.

Amber Pankonin: Right, so my favorite professor in college at UNL came to me a few years ago and asked me to teach Nutrition 250, which is Human Nutrition and Metabolism, and this semester I’m actually teaching Nutrition for Optimal Wellness, so it’s really fun because there’s a different mix of students in there. They’re going to be future dieticians, PTs, OTs, personal trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, and it’s all about the application of nutrition.

Dr. Connie: That’s so interesting to think about how you’re teaching, and obviously podcasting, but just the influence and reach you have on so many different professions, and even entrepreneurs, by doing what you do.

(music transition)

Amber Pankonin: What I found is after I left my clinical role, I didn’t have any colleagues around me anymore. You know how you would sit in a break room, and you have people around you, I didn’t have that anymore, and I really found that on social media. I remember jumping on Twitter and doing searches for dieticians, and I found dieticians who are all over the country, and so that really inspired me then to learn about what they were doing, and how they were running businesses, which really encouraged me to make that jump into entrepreneurship.

Dr. Connie: So was there a defining moment that you decided to start a business, or was it more just a thoughtful process? Tell us a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey.

Amber Pankonin: Well, I was raised by entrepreneurs, and I married an entrepreneur, and I have a lot of friends who are entrepreneurs, so,


Dr. Connie: So you’re surrounded.

Amber Pankonin: I’m surrounded, I’m surrounded, but there was a moment, and it was actually again when I was working as a clinical dietician, my role in that was to calculate tube feeds for patients, so just how babies have formula that they have to get fed every few hours, well when we have a critical patient, we do the same thing for them. I am not a huge fan of math, I mean, I can do math, but it’s not my favorite thing, but I remember sitting in a corner spot, near a patient’s room, and I’m calculating tube feeds thinking, what am I doing here? Because I was so appreciative to have the job, but I knew I wasn’t using my skills and my talents to my full potential, and so that was when I said I need to figure out what I’m going to do here.

Dr. Connie: You think your parents being entrepreneurs had any influence on your decision to start a business?

Amber Pankonin: Absolutely, because I saw risk being played out my whole life, in terms of the things that my dad did, and the support that my mom gave him through that whole process, and especially too having siblings who are also entrepreneurial as well, I think just knowing that, okay, so you take a risk, if you fail, it’s okay, you get back up and you figure out what you’re going to do, and so when I took that risk, it was really kind of scary because I thought maybe we would have a runway, with my husband and I thought, well, maybe there’s a runway of time here that I would have maybe a three to six month window before I really started, or needed to have income, and my husband was actually let go from his job a month after I had quit mine, and so, right.

Dr. Connie:I know, I just, it’s such an amazing story.


Amber Pankonin: I know probably most people would freak out, and we did freak out, I mean I’m not going to say we didn’t freak out, but I think we knew that it was going to be okay. And my husband was also raised by entrepreneurs, and so I think we both knew that, alright, this is when it’s going to get real and we will do this together.

Dr. Connie: That’s so interesting to think about the timing of that all, do you ever think there was a reason? Like the universe was trying to tell you something within that timing?

Amber Pankonin: I don’t know if you’re ever truly ready for entrepreneurship, and I think we just were given that push. And granted, I made the choice to leave my job, but I could have sat on that for a very long time, but I felt at peace in that, and having the faith background that I do, I just knew that it was going to be okay.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: We’re sitting here, and we’re actually recording this in your very cool podcast studio in downtown Lincoln, but why are you here and how does this all connect back to rural? I mean, we have you on as a rural maverick, I’m just going to state it, and we want to dive into that a little bit.

Amber Pankonin: Sure, so, when I was in grad school, I remember looking at nutrition communications as a potential avenue for me, and one of my professors laughed in my face. She said, “Amber, if you are going to do communications, you need to live in either LA, or New York, you can’t possibly do communications from Lincoln, Nebraska.”

Dr. Connie: Wait a second, backup, backup.

Amber Pankonin: I know.

Dr. Connie: I’m, A, I’m really sad that that happened at a university, but B, this is a critical communications piece, I mean we really can’t tell people these things and send that message, but it sounds like obviously you had the great reaction to it, but that’s just disappointing, I mean honestly it’s disappointing, but I imagine that made you a little bit more of a rebel.


Amber Pankonin: Well, exactly, I think it really helped motivate me, and you’ll be thrilled to know that this individual is no longer at the university, but honestly, social media, again, showed me that the world was flat, and it didn’t matter where I lived, and so I could live in Lincoln, Nebraska, as we’ve talked about before, people have described Nebraska as a flyover state, that’s not necessarily the case anymore because of digital communications, you can have those opportunities wherever you live. That conversation definitely motivated me to move forward.

Dr. Connie: Well that’s why we need rural mavericks and entrepreneurs out there to think about what people are saying, but then do what they want and need to do, so we so appreciate that, because one of the things we hear a lot at the Rural Futures Institute, and obviously technology is a huge part of our focus, so is rural-urban collaboration, you’ve connected all of that, you’re putting together rural and urban, you’re connecting people through technology, but you’re also helping them have a more positive outcome doing it.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So tell us what you see as success for your business? Where do you ultimately see this going, what’s your vision?

Amber Pankonin: Not to keep going back to this conversation around social media, but it really did have an impact in that conversation because I had a really unique perspective in that I got to see what consumers were saying about food, and nutrition, and that allowed me immediate access to them, to be able to answer their questions no matter where they lived, and so I could jump in at that point, answer their questions, and build that relationship. And it’s been interesting to see, again, the evolution of those conversations and how we’ve advanced talking about food, nutrition, and agriculture, and how the dietician can work with scientists, and work with farmers, to really communicate that message about where food comes from.

Dr. Connie: And I think that does influence people’s’ thoughts about rural, very much so, what do you see in that space? How do you see people maybe connecting, or needing to reconnect, and maybe how they would have their thoughts influenced about rural and where food comes from?

Amber Pankonin: Right, well it’s interesting because I think the stat is one in four are connected to the farm, or connected to ag in some way, and that didn’t used to be the case. Where most of us used to be connected to the farm, or have a direct connection, and so consumers are being more removed from their food, and so I think it’s really, really important to see our farmers and producers who are jumping into that conversation, and I see myself more as a reinforcer of those messages, and also helping them to understand, here’s how you talk to somebody about food, and how it’s produced, same thing with the scientists, because as you know, being around researchers, they can use some really big words, that can sound really scary. In fact, I was on this tour a few months ago and we were talking about, it had to do with canned food and the scientist had said something about ascorbic acid being added, and I remember this mom blogger behind me freaked out, she didn’t understand that that’s another term for vitamin C, and so being able to I think have those conversations with farmers, and scientists, and say, here’s how we can put it into everyday terms for consumers to understand so that they don’t fear their food.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I really appreciate that, because it’s true. I mean, as an academic you’re sort of trained in one way,and so that’s how you write, and speak. But the end user, so many times, of that information, they’re not in that space, but they just want that practical, what do I need to know? Just in time information, and I think people like you are really helping bridge that gap, and it’s needed, it’s been needed for a long time. The university and other places have talked about this need for ag literacy, food literacy, these types of things, but starting in the middle of a cornfield is a really hard place for people to learn.

Amber Pankonin: It’s a really hard place, and we call it Ag Twitter.


Amber Pankonin: I think, again, social media really brought some community to farmers and producers to see that they weren’t alone, and that they could align themselves strategically with dieticians, and farmers, and other food communicators who are willing to help them.

(music transition)

Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rockstar students from the University of Nebraska, who are making a difference in rural.

Katy Bagniewski: Hey podcast listeners, it’s Katy, production specialist of the Rural Futures podcast. With me today is Trevor Harlow, a senior political science and environmental studies dual major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, welcome Trevor.

Trevor Harlow: Hi, thanks for having me.

Katy Bagniewski: And thanks for being on, now are you from rural, or why do you care so much about rural?

Trevor Harlow: So, originally I was born and raised in Waterloo, Nebraska, which is a small town, but I just, as somebody who’s really interested in administration at both a city, state, and federal level, I think it’s really important and really critical to look at those different societies, those different ways of living, those different communities based upon the urban and rural pipeline, and see how they interact and how they affect the overall functioning of a society.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah, and I know that you have to really dive deep into that aspect of rural communities this summer through RFI’s Student Servership.

Trevor Harlow: Yeah, for sure, so this past summer I spent my time in Red Cloud, Nebraska, which is about three hours from Omaha, just on the Kansas border, and really what I was doing is that city planning, exactly. We worked on developing a comprehensive economic development plan, so really that gave me a chance to critically look at a rural based community, and how they operate, what they’re doing good, what they can be doing better, and just come up with an idea with them of how they can keep getting better in the future.

Katy Bagniewski: And from your experience being immersed in that rural community, what do you see as the biggest opportunity in rural?

Trevor Harlow: A rural community, what’s so special about it, is since it’s small and it’s integrated with its citizens so well, you can come into a community like that and immediately become a prominent, known, and valued member of the community just by wanting to be active, which is so cool, so really anything you’re interested in, you can go there, you can make it known, and you can show your passion for it. I would say anybody, no matter what you’re interested in, you can always find some aspect of that in rural, just because of how community driven those places are.

Katy Bagniewski: So how has RFI and your whole servership experience really impacted your college career, and then your plans looking forward?

Trevor Harlow: It’s been one of the biggest impacts I’ve had in college, I would probably even say the biggest impact, honestly, because prior to that I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t really sure how I wanted to go about doing it, but just getting an opportunity just to work in that kind of setting, city planning, developing a plan, critically analyzing a community and looking at its benefits and what it can improve upon, that really got me thinking about that the public administration route is what I want to do, and that’s the future I want to pursue, so that was something I had in my mind beforehand but it really helped me solidify that, and it gave me a great baseline training for it.

Katy Bagniewski: So, do you have any advice for students who may be interested in rural communities and city planning?

Trevor Harlow: I would definitely say the biggest one, especially with rural communities, is just to go out and be there, I mean you don’t have to live in one for 10 weeks like we did this summer to be immersed in them, you can just go and you can experience it, and just see what it’s about, and maybe it’s not for everyone, but I think until you give it a try of just going out and experiencing it, you’re never going to know. And it’s also just important to keep your options open because like I said earlier, all those communities you really can do anything you want to do if you’re passionate, so just leave it open, try to experience it, and just see what it can be for you.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah, I think that whole concept of being open to the opportunity that lies in rural is so critical for us college students, and I know at RFI that we are very thankful that you were open to this opportunity of RFI servership.

Trevor Harlow: Yes, for sure.

Katy Bagniewski: So thank you Trevor for talking to us today.

Trevor Harlow: Thank you very much.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: We’ve had a theme at the Rural Futures Institute of why rural, why now? And I think people are a little challenged around rural, understanding rural, and so one of the things that we’ve talked about is the importance of where your food comes from. The world’s food supply, and even water supply, largely, come from rural, so if we’re going to have a more sustainable future for all, rural and urban have to work together, but people have to value rural, and help the people living there.

Amber Pankonin: I think that if we’re seeing more people who are removed from food and agriculture, there is less respect, and there has been less respect in the past few years, especially online. It’s amazing when I see the conversation about farmers and producers and people living in rural communities, and I’m just floored, because when I was little my grandparents actually farmed, and I remember my mom and dad telling me that I needed to appreciate what was on my plate because a farmer worked really hard to produce that. So I feel like I have a very different perspective, or had a different perspective growing up, I never would have insulted a farmer. And so some of the conversation that I see right now just seems to be a little negative, it’s a lack of respect, and I think it’s because it’s a lack of understanding of what people do, of what farmers do.

Dr. Connie: We’ve talked a lot about how do we create better research questions, and better conversations, so it’s not an either or, but it’s a both and world.

Amber Pankonin: Right, when I even look at the curriculum for dieticians, I work with a lot of students and it’s so interesting to me to hear their thoughts on food production. They’ve been led to believe that the word processed is bad.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I can see that, right, right.

Amber Pankonin: It’s having conversations like that to teach them that you are going to be, the future dietician, the future trusted food and nutrition professional, you have to be able to answer questions about how food is produced, because so often we hear things from another person, or those soundbites, and we just pass them on as if they’re truth, without being skeptical, and so I think that’s a really important part of the conversation as well.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: You talked about processed food and the negative vibes people get from that, so tell us a little bit more about why that’s not always a negative?

Amber Pankonin: So even canned fruits and vegetables, it’s a processed food, and I know that folks will tend to think negatively about a canned food, where actually some canned foods can be very nutritious because, as you know, some are peaked right when they’re the most nutritious, and even using that scary sounding ascorbic acid, which is vitamin C, that adds some really great nutrition, and so just because it says processed, or you think of it as processed, processed can actually be a really good thing. Even when you pick an apple, you’re technically processing, so there are a lot of ways that you can view that word and I think we just need to shift that word into being more of a positive than a negative.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Well I know one of your areas of expertise is fake news, and I loved reading about that a little bit more when you gave us some background info about yourself, so tell us, what exactly is fake news? And how do we get around that so we are getting the real information?

Amber Pankonin: Well it’s funny because that term, obviously has been used a lot in the last couple of years, but dieticians have been dealing with fake news forever. Because as you know, we can get food nutrition information from anywhere. If it’s on the internet, it must be true.

Dr. Connie: Right, that’s right.

Amber Pankonin: And now we see that fake information being presented in those documentaries, or what I like to call “shockumentaries”, and it’s so easy to hear from a blogger who’s not educated about food nutrition, or agriculture, but they’ve built this massive following and they’re considered an influencer, and they’re spreading that, what I would call ‘fake news’.

Dr. Connie: The great thing about technology is you can build a platform, I think the challenge is anybody can build a platform, so it is confusing, I think, to see what’s real, what’s not, how do you sift through it, and really get information that you can use in a positive way.

Amber Pankonin: I tell people that you need to look at whoever is writing that article, look for an author name, see if they have any credentials behind their name, see what their history is, who are they associated with, who’s funding them, I think that, that all goes into being skeptical and doing the work of looking at that information.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: I want to know about your leadership style, how would you characterize yourself as a leader?

Amber Pankonin: Well I think I told you this earlier, I don’t really know how to answer that because I’ve been in leadership roles, and it’s also awkward as an influencer to be considered a leader but I realize as an influencer you are a leader, but I would say I love winning others over, I have that woo factor.

Dr. Connie: You do, I know, you’re into Gallup Strengths like I am, and you definitely have the woo factor.

Amber Pankonin: And I’m also an activator, so I love to start things, I struggle with the finish, as far as really carrying it out, but I just, I love to get people together, and I love to work on things in groups, with people, and that’s weird as a solopreneur, which is why I stay really active professionally within my state organization of dieticians, which is the Nebraska Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, so I was president of that group about two years ago. I love to encourage, especially other RDs, to have a little more confidence in themselves and their skills in terms of asking for money in their job, in terms of wanting other advancements in their job, and it’s been such a fun thing to see my colleagues advance in the last few years.

Dr. Connie: Now why do you think that’s such a challenge for people, to actually ask for what they want and feel like they’re valuable enough to receive it?

Amber Pankonin: It’s tough, especially as a new dietician, I’ll never forget this, one of my first jobs with a master’s degree, I was getting paid about $12 an hour.

Dr. Connie: Oh wow.

Amber Pankonin: And so I switched positions, I found a new job, and even then, it was pretty low, it was about $17 an hour, and then I found a cross posting from another position, about an hour away, and I was able to take that to my employer and say, look at this, this is a five dollar difference, and at the time I had a boss who was also a woman, she was incredible, and she took that directly to administration, and I was able to get a pay increase, but I think it’s tough, especially when you’re a new graduate, and when you are a woman, and I just think I knew that there was more, I knew that she could do something, so there was some trust there, but that’s hard because I think we get intimidated, I don’t think sometimes we have enough confidence to ask, and if you don’t ask you’ll never know what the answer is.

Dr. Connie: That’s right, I mean good for you for just asking and trying that, but what gave you the confidence to go forward and do that?

Amber Pankonin: Well, it had been validated by another job posting, I knew that I could probably go there and get that job and get paid that amount, and so that gave me some confidence, to be able to go and to ask, but naturally too, like we talked about leadership earlier, I wanted to set an example for the rest of my peers, and my colleagues, to say, you could do this, and even as a new graduate it was nice to be able to get that done.

Dr. Connie: Well, and do you feel like as a solopreneur, which is a choice you’re making, being a solopreneur, that you’re still paving and blazing that trail, I would say especially for other female entrepreneurs, we’ve talked about this in our pre-convo, Nebraska’s 50 out of 50 states for females in entrepreneurship, so it’s always exciting to see a woman in business going for it, but how do you think, as a state, how could we foster more women in entrepreneurship?

Amber Pankonin: Well I know for myself, when I was considering possibly doing a tech startup, this was years ago, too, I had competed in a Startup Weekend project, or a Startup Weekend event, and my team, we won that event, and so it was kind of fun to just, I guess imagine what it could be like to maybe run a startup and what that could look like, and at the same time, my husband was also launching his startup, and we both quickly realized that we would be competing for funding, and not that I didn’t want to compete against my husband, but I also wanted to stay married.


Dr. Connie: Right, no, I get that, I get that.

Amber Pankonin: And so, I think there is, there’s something to that competitive spirit, I don’t know a lot of women who have that competitive spirit when it comes to entrepreneurship. I think the ones that you see who are doing it well, there is a spirit of competitiveness, and I think you have to have that.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I think, actually competition is one of my top five, and I know Katelyn Ideus, our executive producer is high in competition as well.


Dr. Connie: When it comes to those Gallup Strengths, it’s kind of interesting how that can play out because I think, also people don’t expect it.

Amber Pankonin: Right, right, well, I’ve heard this phrase about collaboration over competition, and I would say you have to have both, you have to have that competitive spirit but you also have to learn how to work with other people, because that is a part of being successful. I know I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without my tribe, without my team of folks, and so you have to have both.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Tell us a little bit more about what brings you joy in your life, I mean obviously Healthy Under Pressure, and ways to be healthy, and I love the way you talk about that, that it’s the whole piece of physical, spiritual, nutrition, all of that, so tell us how you do that.

Amber Pankonin: Well, when we think about wellness, it’s so easy to just focus on, what did you have for lunch that day? What kind of workout did you get in? And when I see the top 10 causes of death, suicide now is included in that top 10 list, in fact it’s past, I believe, certain types of cancer and heart disease as being one of the top causes of death, and so there’s a lot that goes into that, and so you have to consider that it’s not just about your physical wellness. We have to look at our emotional, and our spiritual, and our mental health, and so I think it’s a mix of what you’re doing physically, including that good nutrition, getting some exercise, but also how you’re nourishing your mind and your spirit. And I saw that personally with myself and my husband, we’re both entrepreneurs, and of course when you’re running a business, it’s so tough, and it’s tough to take care of yourself, so we both quickly realized that there was more that we needed to do in terms of our spiritual and our mental health.

Dr. Connie: So how do you keep those in check? I know you help others with it, what are some things you do for yourselves?

Amber Pankonin: Right, so, of course with nutrition I make sure that we try to eat a lot of our meals at home, I do online grocery shopping just to help keep on track there, but also making time for physical activity I think is super important, getting outside is really important. Actually, so this is my hack with Peloton, I know you said you kind of like to bike, I bought a used spin bike and then I just use the Peloton app, and I have found that that’s one of my favorite ways to exercise, because I love the music, and I love somebody coaching me through it. So that’s one of my favorite forms of exercise right now. Maybe someday I’ll get the real Peloton bike.


Dr. Connie: I love a biking hack, that’s awesome.

Amber Pankonin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then in terms of just our spiritual wellness, and our mental health, we gather with a group of friends every week, so we attend church, we think that’s really important to surround yourselves with people who can worship together, and so that’s something that I know has been really important for us, and having a small group of friends, too, to walk with us, and encourage us, and to also ask us what those struggles are, and for us to be self aware, to be honest with them, has also been really important for us.

Dr. Connie: And I think this holistic approach to life has been such an advancement in society, and kind of a newer change, relatively, in the history of time, but how do you see this all evolving into the future, and I’m going to ask you to put your futurist hat on, you’re on the cutting edge of your work, and you are an influencer in this space, so how do you see the evolution, what do you see as the future of your area of nutrition, holistic living, all of these types of things put together?

Amber Pankonin: Well, as you know, I think the stigma of mental health is, it’s changing, and that’s encouraging, to see that perspective. I also think in terms of nutrition we’re going to see that trend of what we call nutrigenomics, so it’s very individualized nutrition care, and I think that that’s going to be the future of wellness, because right now, as you know, a lot of our recommendations are based on groups of populations, very general nutrition recommendations, which are good, I think in general USDA, the MyPlate Plan, is actually a very good, healthy, balanced plate, but the role of the registered dietician I think will be to get in there and see how do we really balance that plate for that one individual, and again applying nutrition science, nutrigenomics, into developing that specialized plan for people.

Dr. Connie: Do you see some technologies now that are starting to move things in that direction?

Amber Pankonin: Oh, absolutely, I mean I think even when you see the genetic testing going on where you can find what your background information is, and all of that,  we’re definitely seeing some of that started, and we also see people who are doing a lot of studies right now, in nutrigenomics, that is a really hot thing in nutrition. Also in addition to looking at the microbiome, we’re seeing a lot of really interesting studies looking at the microbiome and how it really impacts health and future health.

Dr. Connie: And just to learn more about this, this is where I think as a futurist I just become a sponge, and it’s so awesome to learn from people like yourself that are on the cutting edge of these technologies, because as we think about the future, and a lot of this is already here, we’re seeing this exponential growth in these spaces, but at the Rural Futures Institute we’ve also been really trying to help people understand how can this help better the future of rural places? How can advancements in science and technology really create a system that people can live, and thrive, in those rural areas. What are your thoughts around that?

Amber Pankonin: Right, well, it’s about access to communication, and access to people who can help them. I look at even the field of dietetics, and how far we’ve come in the last five years, because we didn’t used to have these platforms where you could connect to somebody virtually and be able to talk to a dietician and have that safely monitored, but now we do, and so I think it’s going to be really interesting to see even how that evolves in terms of connecting to an RD who can specifically help you with that issue that you’re dealing with, not just a general nutrition issue.

Dr. Connie: I do quite a bit of work with the healthcare sector in terms of what does the future look like, and recently published a paper on the future of rural healthcare, and one of the things that I think could be integrated more into some of that is exactly what you do, that health does equal life in so many ways, so if we don’t have our health we’re not able to do much. If you don’t feel well, you’re not as productive, you’re not enjoying life, you’re not out there, but I think in many ways the medical profession is still a little bit of, what’s the diagnosis? Here’s the medication, versus thinking about, could we personalize your diet? Could we look into this? Could we use some technology to do that? So you don’t have to have a hospital exactly where you live, maybe there’s some in home pieces to that.

Amber Pankonin: Right, well it’s about treatment versus prevention, and dieticians are positioned to really help with that prevention piece, which is why I do what I do, and why I communicate what I do, I think that’s super important.

(music transition)

Amber Pankonin: Obviously I believe nutrition is really important, but I really cannot stand it when I see those messages of, “this is going to cure this disease”, we can’t say that. Not everyone is the same, or has that same background, knowledge, and information, and so I think we have to be very, very careful about those messages. Pointing back to that phrase food is medicine, of course, I think food is so important, it can be nourishment, it can definitely help with prevention, but food does not replace medicine. So if you have high blood pressure, if you have diabetes, please keep taking your medication. Food can be a tool that can be used to help you manage those disease states, but we also need science, and technology, I think, to help us assist with that.

Dr. Connie: No, I think that’s a great way to word that, and I think that coming together with all that is great advice for listeners.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So what top three tips would you have for those people listening there, in terms of being a leader, an entrepreneur, a maverick in your space?

Amber Pankonin: I would say don’t isolate yourself. I think it can be so easy to do what you do and not pay attention to the world around you, and not think that it’s important to build those relationships, and what I’ve seen, especially with the farmers and the producers that I’ve worked with is when they jumped on a social media platform, or they started reaching out to other producers, they found community, and especially when they built community with scientists, and dieticians, who could help them.

Dr. Connie: Oh, nice.

Amber Pankonin: And so, that would be my first tip is just don’t isolate yourself, reach out, get help if you need it.

Dr. Conine: Yeah, I love that, because I also know, just from talking to you previously, this transdisciplinary approach you take, and I know that sounds like, one of those big academic words, but bringing all these different areas together, to figure this out in a little more robust but scientific way. You’ve talked about the importance of soil health in nutrition, you’ve talked about the importance of social media in nutrition, and communication, and understanding, and I think there’s just a lot of lessons we can all learn from that.

Amber Pankonin: Absolutely, and I would say too, I think you should value your knowledge. Often I talk to farmers and producers who don’t think that they have any value, or anything to add to the conversation, don’t hold that information hostage, share it with others, and know that you can always add value to the conversation.

And what words of wisdom would you share for people who are in a business, or maybe thinking about starting one?

Amber Pankonin: Definitely take some time to come up with a game plan, research a little bit, try to validate your idea, I think that’s really important. So often we think, oh, I’m just going to do this because people have to need this, of course they need this. Well, ask that question, go find a group of people that you can test that with, so if it’s a product or service, make sure you have a group of folks who are willing to pay for that product or service, and ask them how much would you pay for this product or service? So validate the idea and then take the leap.

Dr. Connie: Excellent, thank you so much for being on the Rural Futures podcast, we enjoyed this conversation and take that to heart listeners, Amber has a lot to share.