20 Years, 20 Leaders: Natalie D. Muth, MD

Natalie D. Muth MD

“I see a future in which medicine is as much about public health and wellness as it is about sick care and the treatment of diseases.”

Our connection to the experiences of those who came before helps to define the present and future of medicine. The Foundation is celebrating 20 years by joining in conversation with 20 women leaders in all aspects of medicine to understand their stories and how their experiences will shape the next generation.

Natalie D. Muth MD, is a pediatrician and WELL Clinic Director of the Children’s Primary Care Medical Group in Carlsbad, California. She also is an award-winning author and adjunct assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Dr. Muth is the incoming chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Obesity and is a national media spokesperson for the academy.

Here’s what we learned from Dr. Muth:

Why did you choose to go into medicine or your related field?

When I was 17, I had a life-changing experience hiking the Grand Canyon with my mom. Prior to that, we both had struggled with our health and our nutrition and activity choices. The sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from setting a goal and achieving it (even though it was really hard), and the tremendous benefits that came from being healthy (and helping my mom to do the same) inspired me. During college at UCLA, it became clear to me that I could make the biggest impact as a physician with a background in public health, nutrition, and exercise.

What’s your core philosophy?

Margaret Mead put words to a core philosophy that I follow: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

What motivates you?

Knowing that I am helping children and families achieve wellness motivates me.

How do you motivate others?

I strive to empower others to find their own intrinsic motivation. I do this by helping people put words to their vision of what they would like to accomplish and what most inspires and excites them. Then, in whatever way I can, I help them take steps to achieve that vision. 

What challenges have you had to overcome?

A challenge I overcame that then shaped the trajectory of my life and career afterwards was struggling with obesity as a child. After experiencing negative health effects associated with my weight and teasing and bullying from classmates, I became determined to make changes to my nutrition and physical activity to be as healthy as possible. I cut out sugary drinks and drank more water, found exercises and physical activities that I enjoyed doing, started eating more fruits and vegetables, and learned how to cook ‘real food.’ The boost to my confidence and health that came from the changes I made motivated me to want to pursue a career where I could help kids and their families find physical activities they love and healthy foods they enjoy learning how to grow, cook, and eat so that they could be as healthy as possible. That led me to pediatrics, where I now lead a nutrition and healthy weight clinic (the WELL clinic).

Humans fail. Please share a time when you failed and what you did next to move forward.

Just one example? I have failed a lot. This is at least in part because I like to put myself out there and pursue things that sometimes are slightly out of reach. I learn a lot from the failures and pick myself up so I am ready to stretch for the next potential opportunity. For example, I pursued a leadership opportunity within my company but was not selected. While I was disappointed, I took the failure as an opportunity to focus my attention on my key interests and passions, and as a result was able to found and a grow a new program.

Who was your most important mentor(s) and why?

I have been lucky to have had very positive and influential mentors through each stage of my career. My first and most important mentor was my mom who, as a successful businesswoman and entrepreneur, was eager to teach me the ropes.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

Every problem has a solution. The solution may not be straightforward or easy, but with some creativity, wit, and resourcefulness, most problems can be solved.

How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition?

For me, success is being happy, having a strong relationship with my family, and feeling like I’ve made a difference in helping make life better for other people. While my work is nowhere near done, I feel like I am on track.

What do you see in store for the future of medicine and the related fields?

I see a future in which medicine is as much about public health and wellness as it is about sick care and the treatment of diseases (many of which can be prevented with a greater focus on public health and wellness).

What advice would you give to the next generation of women in medicine and the medical sciences?

This is my favorite quote, and advice I’d like to borrow from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

The Backstory on Dr. Muth

Natalie D. Muth MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP, FACSM, is the author of five books and over 100 publications and several book chapters, including the winner of the Maggie Awards – the "Oscars" of the magazine publishing industry – for her articles "Shaping a healthier future for America’s children" and “Physical literacy – why our kids need it, how they can get it,” both in IDEA Fitness Journal. She has provided expert commentary for CNN, NPR, Good Morning America, ABC Worlds News Now, and numerous other media outlets.

Dr. Muth graduated from UCLA with majors in psychology and physiological sciences with college honors, summa cum laude, and Phi Beta Kappa. She earned a Master of Public Health in nutrition at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, completing her master thesis on childhood obesity screening in schools based on her work at the CDC’s Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity. She graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine where she was awarded the Davis Pediatric Student Scholar, a recognition given to the most promising medical student planning to specialize in pediatrics.