My passion for health and nutrition started in high school with an Introduction to Biochemistry module my science teacher threw into our curriculum for fun. I was fascinated by the idea that single genes, single proteins, and single nutrients could have such a huge impact on how our whole bodies work!
This lead me to pursue my Bachelor’s degree in Exercise & Health Science (now called Integrative Physiology) at Alma College, a private liberal art school near where I grew up in central Michigan! These studies solidified my resolve to pursue a career in medicine and helped me narrow my focus down to cancer research.
After graduating, relocating to Germany and taking a year to learn German, I entered a Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Program with a focus on Molecular Oncology at Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel.
Oddly, these studies ultimately turned me away from molecular medicine, setting me on a path to pursue holistic and lifestyle medicine! I even switched programs, graduating instead with a Master’s in Human Nutrition.
Since then I have dedicated myself to spreading accurate, scientifically-founded nutrition and health information to help people live the healthiest happiest lives possible so that they, hopefully, never need molecular medicine at all! If you want to learn more about me, click on the links below!
Seagulls and A Slide: How A Single Lecture Lead Me to Lifestyle Medicine
I was sitting in a conference room tucked away in the corner of the 4th floor of a cancer research hospital, half-listening to a lecture on clinical oncology and half watching the seagulls zip around in the clear blue sky outside the window.
We get what feels like about 5 clear, sunny warm days per year where I live in northern Germany (imagine Seattle on steroids) so, despite my best efforts to pay attention, my mind kept wandering outside. To the parks. And the beach. And to getting some sunshine on my skin to make some of my own vitamin D for the first time in ages.
“… environmental causes account for up to 90% of cancer risk, and…” Wait, what? The classroom came back into focus with a start. The professor was going through a slide of common cancers and their causes, as part of a broad introduction that would quickly narrow into a detailed discussion of molecular cancer treatments.
Sure enough, the statistics listed showed overwhelming effects of environmental causes for these cancers: smoking, diet, sun exposure, diet, obesity, chemical exposures, diet…
The slide was only up for a minute, maybe 90 seconds. The professor glossed over it quickly — stated the facts, and moved on. It wasn’t anywhere near the point of his lecture. But it struck me to the core.
If cancer was 90% environmental, it was 90% preventable.
This horrible, malignant, life-ruining disease that I had been studying for years, picking apart at the cellular and genetic level, could, in most cases, be stopped before it started? That was something that had made abundantly clear about lung cancer and smoking in my studies, but all the other cancers? Brain tumors? Pancreatic cancer? That had not gotten through to me at all.
I can’t say if it wasn’t emphasized, or if I just didn’t get it. I intended to study cancer biology and become a clinical researcher to help find a drug that could cure cancer, so there is a decent chance bits of lectures focusing on the environmental causes of cancer went right over my head. A cure is a cure, regardless of the cause.
For whatever reason, though, on this rare warm summer day when I was only half paying attention, it got through to me.
Prevention is Key
I went home and (after sunning myself on the balcony for the rest of the afternoon) started digging through the scientific literature to see if it bore out the stats I’d been shown. The evidence was overwhelming and, within a few months, I was convinced I’d been looking at the problem entirely backward.
As important as a cure for cancer was (and is), preventing it in the first place is even better.
This realization set me on a new path, both personally and professionally. I switched my field of study to human nutrition and began immersing myself in the lifestyle medicine and holistic health movement.
There I discovered the same principle I’d found with cancer applied to all our most dreaded, chronic diseases: heart disease, diabetes, dementia, autoimmune diseases, all of them. They can be prevented, and the prevention is easier and more effective than treatment.
I decided to dedicate myself to spreading this information as far and wide as possible. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since: deepening my knowledge with further learning and studying the scientific literature and writing about everything I’ve learned to share with as many people as I can!
Now, I probably could (and maybe someday should!) write an entire book-length text about all the things I’ve learned about health, nutrition and lifestyle medicine that could help people live healthier lives, but that would make a crappy blog post! So we’ll just stick to the top 4 principles I think are the most foundational to building a healthy diet and lifestyle.
1. Remember: there are simple rules
One of the biggest (and most legitimate) criticisms of nutrition and lifestyle medicine is that it is extremely complicated, confusing, and contradictory. Scientists like getting into the nitty-gritty of how individual nutrients from individual foods interact with individual genes in our cells. It’s like catnip to us!
Sometimes we forget, though, that the resulting barrage of detailed information can be overwhelming for people just trying to figure out what should be included in a healthy lifestyle, and what shouldn’t.
I’m not saying not to check out individual studies; they can provide lots of really neat information. Just don’t let individual studies distract you from the big picture principles that should define how you approach healthy living. These are 6 really, really simple ideas:
- Vegetables are healthy.
- Fruit is healthy.
- Whole foods are healthy.
- Water is healthy.
- Exercise is healthy.
- Sleep is healthy.
Super basic. Super easy. But super true.
There are not going to be any studies coming out saying vegetables should not be included in a healthy diet. There are none that are going to say we shouldn’t get enough sleep. You cannot go wrong using these as the foundation for building a healthy life.
Anytime you catch yourself becoming confused, stressed out or overwhelmed trying to eat and live healthily, just come back to these basic principles. They break the circle of reductionist and perfectionist thinking and help you refocus on what you are really trying to do: take care of yourself!
2. Focus on addition
The basic idea here is to focus on adding healthy foods to your diet wherever and whenever you can, rather than trying to remove unhealthy foods from it.
There are three extremely important benefits to this.
First, you’ll feel less deprived. By always thinking about what you are eating, what you can eat, and what you get to eat, you’ll have far less time to think about what you’re not eating.
Second, despite not thinking about deliberately cutting out unhealthy foods, you’ll still eat less of them. By making the deal with yourself that you always have to add whatever healthy foods are available to your plate, you will have less room — both on your plate and in your belly — for unhealthy foods. The longer you do this, the less you’ll feel the desire to eat the unhealthy foods because your taste buds will get more and more used to the less-sugary/less-salty taste palate. It’s a natural way to shift your diet with much less need to rely on will-power and control.
Third, relinquishing tight control of your diet can also help foster a healthy mental and emotional relationship with food and eating.
This is important for your overall health and can be a particularly useful strategy if you’re prone to eating disorders or are one of the millions of us who has just gotten sick of having to think about food all the friggin’ time.
3. Eat dense
Another key strategy that can help you build a solid, long-term healthy diet is to focus on loading up on nutrient-dense foods.
Nutrient-dense foods contain lots of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and/or fiber for the number of calories they contain.
This is a solid strategy for two reasons:
First, it shifts the focus from calories to nutrients. High-calorie foods that are rich in nutrients — like nuts, seeds or sweet potatoes — suddenly stack up much better than they otherwise would. And these are healthy foods you want to include in your diet!
It’s not ideal to have them ranked the same as processed junk food that might have the same calories but doesn’t provide your body with hardly any of the health-promoting vitamins or minerals of whole foods.
Second, focusing on filling your plate with nutrient-dense foods automatically decreases your calorie intake, without you having to count calories. It’s basically an extension of the Addition principle from point #2, just including calories in the equation!
This is a particularly useful way to approach healthy eating if you are looking to lose weight or maintain the previous weight-loss without following a rigid diet for the rest of your life!
4. Remember to take care of YOU
This phrase combines two key points in one short sentence!
First, it highlights that one diet and lifestyle doesn’t fit all. Though I believe the super broad 6-rules from point #1 apply to everyone, there is so much wiggle room within them that everyone can adapt them to fit their needs.
You have to find an exercise routine and recipe repertoire that fits your tastes, your job, your culture and your genes. You know better than anyone what is going to work for you.
As long as you are getting as many whole fruits and vegetables, exercise, water and sleep as you can (and working honestly towards more if you know you need it), don’t worry about the details.
Second, it emphasizes the fact that health is about more than a nutritious diet and a solid exercise routine. The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
I try to keep that definition in the back of my head when making health decisions for myself, and I think it’s a useful reference point for us all.
A lifestyle shouldn’t just make your body healthy — it should make You healthy. Mentally. Physically. Emotionally. Socially.
That may mean skipping a workout sometimes because you are really tired from work. It may mean that a friends-night-out needs to happen, pizza or no pizza. It may mean not going out because you need a healthy veggie fix you can’t get at that restaurant. And it means that even a nutritionally perfect diet might not be the healthiest diet for you if it’s seriously hurting you mentally, emotionally or socially.
Finding that balance is an incredibly hard thing to do, I know, but it’s worth trying for.
Take Away Message
I guess the main idea I’d like to leave you with is this: a healthy diet and lifestyle are both much more powerful and much less complicated than most people have been lead to believe. They can not only improve the way you feel day-to-day but also protect you from the most devastating, debilitating and deadly diseases we know of. They can keep your body healthy for life! And if you relax, take a step back and keep an eye on the big picture, they can do so without harming any other aspect of your life, letting you live a healthy life in the truest sense of the word!
These were awfully peculiar lessons to learn from a half-listened-to molecular oncology lecture, I know, but I am so grateful that I learned them! And I am even more grateful for the opportunity to share them with you, even if I can’t provide the cool window-flitting seagull and sunshine backdrop to go with them!
(Please note – if you did have sunshine and seagulls as a backdrop for reading this blog post because you are in Florida, or California, or southern Italy right now, a small part of me hates you.)