Make sure you do at least one thing to help each patient or client you encounter.
Today, more than ever, wellness is at the forefront of societal discussions. From mental health to physical well-being, women are making significant strides in bringing about change, introducing innovative solutions, and setting new standards. Despite facing unique challenges, they break barriers, inspire communities, and are reshaping the very definition of health and wellness. In this series called women in wellness we are talking to women doctors, nurses, nutritionists, therapists, fitness trainers, researchers, health experts, coaches, and other wellness professionals to share their stories and insights. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Staci Gulbin.
Staci Gulbin, a registered dietitian since 2010, is a graduate of the Institute of Human Nutrition and Teacher’s College of Columbia University and has treated hundreds of patients over the years for nutrition-related issues ranging from weight management, diabetes, heart health, renal health, and bariatric nutrition pre- and post-surgery. She has also been a freelance writer for various health platforms including Shape.com, Health.com, GoodRx.com, Livestrong.com, as well as Vita Sciences, Cdiabetes, and Casa de Sante since 2011, and has been featured as a nutrition expert on websites like OprahMag.com and EatThisNotThat, to name a few. Staci has two published cookbooks currently on Amazon.com, “The High Protein Bariatric Cookbook” and “The Healthy Bariatric Smoothies Recipe Book,” and she is currently working on finding representation for her self-help/memoir that chronicles her recent five-year battle with various health crises and life lessons she has learned from these experiences. Staci has a website and blog at www.lighttracknutrition.com related to new health food products, nutrition tips, and evidence-based wellness advice, and she plans on releasing a podcast with related content in January 2024.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Igrew up as a middle child in a small suburb in Maryland. I always loved reading and learning, and particularly wanted to pursue a career in medicine. As a child, I would dress up as a doctor for career day, watch St. Elsewhere (a medical show in the 1980’s) when I got home from kindergarten, and would hand out “Smarties” candies to my family members and pretend they were medicine. I studied biology in college and grad school, but when my medical school aspirations did not pan out, I realized that there were other ways I could help people become healthier. I was grateful that one of my grad school classes at New York University helped me to discover my true passion for nutrition.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
I think some of the most interesting stories I have had in my career involved patients of mine in the bariatric clinic as well as in the public hospital. Both of these jobs were very emotionally and mentally exhausting due to the nature of the health conditions the patients were in that I was assessing as well as the difficult background such patients would come from. But I remember in particular a patient in the bariatric clinic that lived in an airport since she was homeless. She had had bariatric surgery years before, and even though she had no place to call home, she would still make it to her follow-up appointments with me every six months and would be eager for any advice I could provide to help her eat as healthfully as possible under the circumstances of her living situation.
I would try and load her backpack with as many free samples of nutrition shakes and vitamins as I could to help her get by. Such appointments would challenge me to provide her with lists of foods she could get at shelters or at the airport through vending machines, etc. that would help her receive the vitamins and nutrients she needed to stay as healthy as possible. I will never forget my last appointment with her, before I moved from Oregon to Colorado, when she told me she had been approved for an apartment for her and her daughter to live in. She was so excited that it had a kitchen where she could cook fresh meals.
From this experience and many similar to it thereafter during my work at the public hospital, I learned that many of us take for granted the basic things in life such as a kitchen and being able to buy food at a grocery store. It frustrates me when I see people online judging people who eat prepackaged foods often since these types of foods are some of the only things many low-income individuals can afford. I think society as a whole needs to focus more on being sensitive to the food insecure and advocate for making healthy food accessible for all before they start judging people who can’t blend smoothies and take supplements every day.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was first starting out as a dietitian, I was working at a medical weight loss clinic. Run by two very shrewd and rude businessmen with little to no healthcare experience, the dietitian team was told to help create a database of foods that would go into the computer-generated meal plans. The meal plans were around 1200 calories for most people, especially for most women who walked into the clinic for nutritional help. We had to stick with the recommendations the meal plans provided regardless of the background of the patients we spoke with. And most of the appointments were to be spent selling the medical weight loss packages full of diet pills, protein bars, and B12 shots instead of giving actual nutritional advice.
I felt icky inside doing this job the whole time I was doing it, but felt I had to pay my dues before I was able to get a job where I would have more independence in providing personalized nutrition education. I would tell patients to cut carbs wherever possible and would give them tips on how to drink water before meals to make themselves feel full. I now look back and realize that I was teaching them disordered eating tips. From this experience, I learned that one diet does not fit all and that in order to be the most effective counselor in any field, nutrition, psychology, or otherwise, you must make listening your most important tool.
Let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
I feel that my work is helping to make a bigger impact in the world by teaching people one at a time how to eat healthier and how to treat their body to obtain optimal health. And with my health writing, I feel I can help provide basic nutrition advice to a larger audience online. My hope is to continue to reach even larger audiences through my writing online, through my self-help memoir which I am looking for representation for at this time, and through my future podcast.
Through these means, I feel I can help more people receive accurate, evidence-based nutrition information that they could benefit from having to help them reduce hospital stays and manage any health conditions they may have. I want everyone that has access to a computer or bookstore to be able to have access to nutrition information coming from an experienced nutrition expert that they may not be able to afford to receive otherwise.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing?
1 . Listen to your body. Decades of self-imposed restriction and dieting have made it difficult for many of us to know when we are truly hungry or full. If we start training ourselves to listen to such signals closer, then we can come one step closer to a healthier relationship with food and in turn closer to healthier eating patterns.
2 . Don’t use social media to replace evidence-based health and nutrition information. Many of the most popular “health” influencers online have not an ounce of nutrition background, education, or work experience. They are merely trying to create a problem in your mind by twisting health research outcomes from decades ago, so that you will buy their “solution” to said problem.
Lean on nutrition experts only (food scientists, dietitians, doctors with nutrition credentials, research food scientists, etc.) for nutrition information. Some influencers may say they are doctors, but you should ask yourself what they are a doctor of. Psychiatrists or chiropractors are not nutrition professionals and should not be giving nutrition advice, just like dietitians like myself should not give medical advice. Also, chefs or cookbook authors are not all trained or educated in nutrition, so do not rely on such people for nutrition advice unless they have a background and education in nutrition.
3 . Eat a balanced diet each day versus chronic dieting. Chronic dieting only leads to anxiety, an unhealthy relationship with food, and weight cycling that can place stress on your heart and body. (Sources: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7538029/#REF38; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6489475/). Stick to eating a balanced diet everyday instead to reduce stress on your body and mind.
4 . Focus on what your body can do, not on what size clothes you can fit into. Sizes of clothes vary greatly depending on the brand, cut, and country from where it was made. Therefore, it is impossible to really know what size you wear in clothing, nor does it really matter. What matters is how you feel in the clothes you are in. So, focus more on all the wonderful, positive things your body does to keep you going each day instead of what size clothes it fits in. Your mental health will be better because of it.
5 . Stop labeling foods as good or bad, and instead focus on balancing all foods into a healthy, sustainable lifestyle routine.
Just as many of us wish for labels to stop being placed on people, we should stop placing labels on food just the same. When you call a food “bad” or “good,” it places a certain stigma on it. If chocolate is called a “bad” food, then we will try and avoid it, but may also think about it often since we have considered it off limits.
On the other hand, if we name a food like broccoli as a “good” food, then we may feel bad if we don’t like broccoli and may consider ourselves or others unhealthy if we or they don’t eat broccoli or other green vegetables. I know that I have been bothered endlessly by others, family and friends alike, that say “How can you be a dietitian and not like green vegetables?” I do like peas and green beans, but because of my taste preferences and food intolerances, I stick to a small group of vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots that I enjoy and tolerate well.
It doesn’t make me unhealthy in any way that I don’t eat a plethora of different vegetables. But diet culture has made it so engrained in many of our minds that if you don’t eat green vegetables then you are unhealthy. Diet culture has also made us feel like healthcare providers should be perfectly healthy if we are to trust them and listen to them for advice. Both of these trains of thought are ridiculous and misleading. A world without labeling food or people (nutrition facts labels on foods an exception) would be a better world for us all.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
If I could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, it would be to help advocate for greater access to healthy food for all. I think beyond nutrition education, if healthier food was more accessible and affordable, then health outcomes would naturally improve for most people. Then once everyone had such access, nutrition education would hold more practicality and meaning for most people.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
The “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” would be:
- You can’t help everyone.
- It’s the small things that make a big difference.
- Make sure you do at least one thing to help each patient or client you encounter.
- People will only listen to you fully once they have trust in you.
- If you help just one person, you have done something to be proud of.
I think starting off as a new dietitian, I thought I was going to automatically change the world, everyone would listen to me, and the stars would be aligned. But I soon realized that very few people I encountered would be in a state of wanting to change their behaviors after our appointment together. I had to accept that not everyone would listen to me, so it would be more effective if I just spent time listening to them and where they were at.
I would try and build rapport first and foremost, and maybe then after they realized we were on each other’s side, maybe they would listen to the advice I had to provide. I started to realize that if each patient and client could leave our time together with one piece of new advice, nutritional information, or at the very least, a knowing that I cared about them and their situation, then it was a successful visit.
In my work at the hospital, there are some patients that are battling painful diseases and/or have no home to go to when they are discharged. If I can at the very least provide them with a favorite snack from the food service, or order them a nutritional shake that they crave to take home with them, then I am doing one little thing I can to make them comfortable. Or if I can reach out to the social worker or medical team to help the patient receive resources on how to obtain healthy food upon discharge or how to receive meals on wheels or nutrition shakes for low cost, then that is success.
Unfortunately, I can’t help them transform their lives in a big way through my job, but if I can help in a small way, then hopefully it will mean something to them and provide them encouragement and hope for the future.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health, and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Mental health is dearest to me since I myself suffer from panic attack disorder and anxiety as well as a history of disordered eating. I feel that mental health is vital to overall health and wellness of body and mind since it impacts the behaviors we engage in day to day and can have enormous impacts on nutrition.
Many of my malnourished patients in the public hospital have an underlying mental health condition, and such lack of nutrition makes it even harder for such patients to manage their mental health conditions and overall health. I hope for the day when mental health will be an acceptable form of healthcare across all generations and cultures, without shame or stigma, so that we all can give ourselves the opportunity to live our best lives.
What is the best way for our readers to further follow your work online?
Readers can read my blog or check for updates on my future projects and offerings at www.lighttracknutrition.com.
Thank you for these fantastic insights! We wish you continued success and good health.
About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com.