Pay attention to what is not working for you. For mostly unknown reasons, more people are developing allergies and sensitivities to foods than ever before. They experience unexplained weight gain, brain fog, inflammation, sore muscles, fatigue and other symptoms that don’t quite point to anything specific. Many think they are missing something in their diet, and that is most likely true. But what most don’t think about is that they might need to remove something from their diet.
In an era dominated by pharmaceutical solutions, there is a rising consciousness about the incredible healing and preventive powers of food. As the age-old saying goes, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” But how does this translate in today’s world? Can we really use nutrition as a potent tool against sickness and disease? How does one curate a diet that supports health, longevity, and wellness? In this series, we are talking to nutritionists, dietitians, medical professionals, holistic health experts, and anyone with authoritative knowledge on the subject. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Deb Kennedy.
Dr. Deb Kennedy, is a PhD nutritionist, chef, and expert in the food is medicine movement. She is a food warrior dedicated to improving the health of people, communities, and the planet through food. She received her Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry from Tufts University, and previously held roles with Tufts Human Nutrition Research Center for Aging, Yale’s Prevention Research Center, Babies and Children’s Hospital at New York Presbyterian, Cornell University, and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. She held the position of first Chair for Best Practices at the Teaching Kitchen Collaborative (CIA) and was an instructor in Culinary Nutrition at the New England Culinary Institute.
Dr. Deb is the author of multiple books, including The Culinary Medicine Textbook, a five-volume publication to date that uses her research in food, flavor, eating and nutrition to lay out the concepts and fundamental topics needed to master culinary medicine. Dr. Deb, along with 40 nutritionists and a dozen chefs from around the world, created culinary competencies for nutrition recommendations. She has developed the Food Coach Academy based on this work, which is delivered in a science-based modular format that provides individuals with expertise needed to use the power of food to transform health.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Iwas born in Montreal and moved to the United States at age two to a beautiful piece of property with a large garden and an orchard. My dad rehabilitated horses, bred Labradors, and taught cross-country skiing and fly fishing. I loved the outdoors and we were taught to work hard at a young age; tending the garden, collecting fruit to make jam, and picking dandelions to make wine. In spite of the beautiful surroundings life inside the house was super stressful and my Zen place became the kitchen. I began cooking at the age of four helping my mom feed seven people every day. I fell in love with cooking, it became and remained my love language.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
What inspired me to dive deep into nutrition, specifically food as a healing agent, and ultimately led to creating the Food Coach Academy were my own health struggles. I was given two weeks to live in my twenties while I was finishing up my doctorate in nutrition at Tufts University. My journey to find THE answer led me on the wildest ride of my life. The destination became MY answer. What I discovered in my journey to survive and thrive is that each of us struggling with our health has a personalized journey and a solution within them. This journey, from my head (what others were telling me to do) to my heart (what I knew in my heart to be right for me), was the hardest journey of my life. I want to support others in taking that journey. It starts with a desire to learn, it requires bravery in order to take a deep look within and ends with the courage to take that first step. I don’t want people to do that alone. I did, and it was heart wrenching.
It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My biggest mistake in the beginning (and for many years afterward) was in thinking that I needed to divide myself into segments in order to be accepted. I was not only a PhD nutritionist but I intimately knew the power of self-care and holistic care. I intentionally stepped into the Western medical system to give legitimacy to what I was creating. This led me on a 40-year journey working at the most prestigious institutions that left me mentally and emotionally exhausted. It affected my health to such a degree that I would go on to fight two more forms of cancer.
My CV is stellar but I was thought of as “fringe.” At Babies and Children’s Hospital one of our pediatric patients called me “voodoo lady” and it stuck. She saw the whole me and while I was embarrassed at the time, I learned to hold that title as a badge of courage. It took a long time to come out as fringe and to embrace the “voodoo” as it is my superpower. To be a leader in a new movement — culinary medicine/food-is-medicine — that empowers people to take control of their own health requires that I bring all my parts back, embrace them and let them all shine! My health and transforming preventative healthcare require it.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Number one is always “never forgetting what it felt like.” This has been my mantra not only in my work-life but in raising children, being a friend, and empowering others. I always ask myself what did it feel like to be a teenager or a child, unemployed, or a patient scared for my life. Remembering that…well that is where the magic begins because it doesn’t “other me” from people. Othering is what separates us. Nothing is as powerful as connecting because it builds trust and allows me — the expert — to be less scary to individuals who fear authority figures. Oh the places we will go…on the foundation of trust.
Many times in my career I would speak to individuals diagnosed with cancer. For example, at Babies and Children’s Hospital I remember being asked by the oncologist to talk to the parents of a child who was about to undergo a bone marrow transplant. They had asked if the child was on any supplements and the parents said no. They said the same to me at first but when I shared that I too had cancer, the mom told me the truth and brought in a shopping bag full of supplements that she was giving to her child. Some of them made sense, some would have interfered with the transplant and others, like the blood product imported from another country, could have definitely caused harm. Until I became “like them,” I was not able to lead.
Number two — empowering others. I truly believe in my heart of hearts that everyone that I meet is the expert in their own life, not me. This requires me to leave my preconceptions at the door. For example, in my work as a nutritionist I may not agree with a patient’s choice of a diet when trying to lose weight, but I know that it is their belief that is the strongest predictor of success. I realize that each person is on their healing journey and while I can support them and provide my expert opinion, at the end of the day, the decision is theirs to make.
Number three — being committed to another’s success but not attached. In all of my leadership roles I start with really getting to know the people that I am working with, most importantly their goals and dreams. I have always had the best staff because I look for the “it” factor — what makes them shine — and if it aligns with the job, I hire them right away. From the beginning I look for ways for them to progress in their career track even if it means they eventually move on. I had the best employee working the front desk in a weight center that I built, he really was awesome and the patients loved him, and while I would have liked to personally keep him in that job forever, I knew he wanted to move up the ranks so I gave him every opportunity to do that. He eventually moved on to bigger and better things for him and that meant more to me than holding on to him ever would.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
The Food Coach Academy is by far the greatest project I have ever worked on. It is a cumulation of all my skills and experiences. I created the concept and definition of a Food Coach after studying the healthcare system and watching where it was going; prevention was falling away from the physicians and being handed to allied health professionals and health coaches.
I believe with my over 30 years of experience that what is missing in today’s healthcare system are individuals that teach others the skills necessary for successfully following a healthy diet. Food coaches provide the support around food-decisions which is the foundation of health prevention. They do so in a way that honors where a person is by:
- Assessing their cooking skills and starting from their current level.
- Discovering barriers to cooking and working with the equipment that they have.
- Assessing an individuals’ palate which is unique as no two of us taste the same. This allows the Food Coach to teach cooking skills that honor a person’s unique tastes preference which are based on their cultural heritage.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview about cultivating wellness through proper nutrition and diet. To begin, can you tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority on the topic of nutrition?
I have learned about food from all angles starting at the age of four when I started cooking. I worked my way up to sous chef by cooking for the catering and restaurant industry from the age of 15, both in the United States and Canada. I then obtained a PhD in nutrition from Tufts University and worked in nutrition at many of the most prestigious institutions — Cornell University, USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Columbia Presbyterian College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York Presbyterian Babies and Children’s Hospital, Yale University Prevention Research Center, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and others. Additionally, being certified in Value Based Medicine (a healthcare delivery model in which payment is based on patient health outcomes) allowed me to assess the current medical system in order to discover where the gaps were so that I could improve the healthcare prevention sector.
I became the first chair for best practices in culinary medicine at the Teaching Kitchen Collaborative (a Harvard and Culinary Institute of America collaboration). In that role I was tasked with looking for curriculum in culinary medicine only to find that there were no standards. Because it didn’t exist, I went on to gather experts from around the world to create for the first time culinary competencies for following nutrition guidelines, which is published in The Culinary Medicine Textbook series. I also taught Culinary Medicine at the New England Culinary Institute.
I brought together my expertise as a nutrition scientist and a chef by creating the Food Coach Academy in partnership with Rouxbe — the number one online cooking school in the world. Think health coach and chef training in one. We are launching a tribe of Food Coaches to go out into the world (especially in hard-to-reach places) to teach others how to shop and cook for their health while respecting their palates, cultural heritage and wallets.
In addition, to be completely transparent, while my experience and training is top notch, what really makes me an authority is my personal journey with health and food. From fighting for my life, to being a sugar addict due to my family upbringing, to gaining weight from cancer treatment, I know in my soul what people go through and how important it is to nourish (not just feed ourselves) on a daily basis because we are all worth it, each and every one of us!
We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
It is simple: we are asked to do too much at once and we are not taught the culinary skills necessary to be successful. When someone is told to eat a healthy diet, they are asked to follow over 150 dietary guidelines at once, and when you pair that with the 220 food decisions that we make in a day we are all faced with information overload. In the field of nutrition we are not lacking information, what we are lacking, however, is a delivery system for that information so that it doesn’t overwhelm, combined with the skills needed to be able to follow the guidelines. What if someone gave you all the information you needed to drive a car but never taught you how to drive?
The delivery system I created is a result of over 15 years of research looking into how people learn and how they make behavioral changes. They do so in bite size steps while building on complexity over time. Children learn history separately from math, and each year, the level of math increases. They aren’t told to learn all subjects at once. I took the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and broke them up into discrete modules — Fruit, Vegetables, Grains, Protein, Sugar, Fats & Oils, Salt, Beverages and Dairy — and treated each as a different subject. Individuals and family members are asked to focus on just one module at a time. They are then given the support, information and culinary skills needed to become successful so they can move on to the text module.
In terms of skill building, The Culinary Medicine Textbook series — created by over 40 nutrition experts and a dozen chefs from around the world collectively culling over 2500 scientific articles for over 3 years — asked the question what does someone need to know how to do in the kitchen and at the store in order to “eat more vegetables” for example? The scientists gathered the scientific information, handed it to the chefs who then translated the information into essential culinary skills needed to be able to follow the guidelines. These culinary skills are the foundation needed for sustainable dietary change.
From your professional perspective, do you believe that nutrition plays a pivotal role in supporting the body’s natural healing processes and overall well-being, particularly in cases of chronic diseases? We’re interested in hearing your insights on the connection between a holistic approach to diet and its benefits for individuals facing health challenges.
In my over 30 years of experience I have seen food and nutrition play a pivotal role in healing. Science backs this up with many studies showing the benefits of eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy sources of fats and protein. Technically it is the nutrients which are embedded in foods that become our “diet” that play a very strong role in supporting health and preventing disease.
When it comes to a holistic approach, that is where the magic happens as all parts of a person are weighted equally — the body, mind and soul. The physiological requirements for nutrition are just one important part of the whole. This holistic approach involves looking at a person’s food stories — what is guiding them to make the decisions that they are making? It considers an individual’s individual palate, cultural heritage, financial and access constraints. It then looks beyond all of that to see what drives a person spiritually. What matters to them?
If true nourishment is not occurring it is seen as a disconnect, not disobedience (not following the doctors orders). Looking for the unmet needs of an individual, living their life in a way we know little to nothing about, requires the holistic practitioner to approach the client as the expert in their own lives. From this place, change flourishes.
Based on your research or experience could you share with us five examples of foods or dietary patterns that have demonstrated remarkable potential in preventing, reducing, or managing specific health conditions? If you can, it would be insightful if you could provide real-life examples of their curative properties.
1 . Eat foods that nourish the microbiota in your gut. We are in our infancy in discovering the power of the microbiome — a collection of bacteria, yeast, parasites and viruses in our large intestine. It is known as the “hidden organ”, and it contributes 150 times more genetic information than our human genome so it is super powerful. Foods that nourish the microbiome nourish us — fermented foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and a diet high in fiber for example.
The microbiota is involved in our metabolism, immunity nutrition status, and much more. A healthy gut microbiome has been shown to be protective on the heart by influencing cholesterol levels; controlling blood sugar levels, which decrease the risk of diabetes; improve brain health; build a strong immune system; protect gut health; influencing weight, and much more.
2 . Pay attention to what is not working for you. For mostly unknown reasons, more people are developing allergies and sensitivities to foods than ever before. They experience unexplained weight gain, brain fog, inflammation, sore muscles, fatigue and other symptoms that don’t quite point to anything specific. Many think they are missing something in their diet, and that is most likely true. But what most don’t think about is that they might need to remove something from their diet.
I had a 40 year old woman come to see me as she was having various symptoms that were not pointing to anything definitive like those listed above. Come to find out in our first session that she had her hips replaced in her thirties. This led me to ask if she was ever diagnosed with celiac disease (a severe allergy to gluten containing products). She hadn’t so I asked her to have her physician run the tests, which came back positive. Her life changed immediately after removing all gluten from her diet. To date she is my biggest fan.
Of note: There is a popular belief that a gluten-free diet is good for everyone. It is not. Unless medically necessary it is not advisable to remove gluten from the diet as it is low in several micronutrients and fiber, plus there is evidence building that there is an increased risk for developing metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
3 . Follow a plant-forward diet. I wish I had something new to say but this message has remained consistent over decades and it is here to stay– eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables — as it is the best thing one can do for their health, hands down. I like to preface this guidance by telling individuals that it is their choice how far down the plant forward path they go; they don’t need to become a vegan (only 3% of Americans) or a vegetarian (5%) to be successful.
When I was given two weeks to live in my twenties I went to the Macrobiotic Institute in Massachusetts to become a vegan as that is what I thought was required to live. Even with my life at stake, I had to check out after two days as I could not stomach steamed greens for breakfast and my gut was so swollen that couldn’t stand the pain. I learned that being a vegan works for some (some people at the Institute looked the picture of health and vitality) while others looked like they hadn’t eating in months. In fact, recent research has suggested that being able to stick to a vegan diet might be due to our genes. Interesting, but how your own body reacts to a dietary change trumps any data.
4 . It’s more than the food. The Mediterranean Diet continues to rise to the top of the list for overall health and prevention. The reason for this is that it follows the science — eat more plants, less animal sources of protein, and consume sweets occasionally. It is also so much more that the diet. The Mediterranean Diet is the diet that was affordable for hard working individuals living in the Mediterranean basin. They lived mostly off the land and eating together became a daily event. The hard physical labor needed to put food on the table, the socializing with friends and family, and taking time to rest during the day are also essential components for health. What makes this diet so attractive is the delicious food that people enjoy, which makes it a “way of life diet” and not a Diet with a capital “D” that many associate with deprivation and rules. It is the opposite — enjoyable — as it should be. I have seen many clients struggle with being told what they have to cut out of their diet. How freeing is it when we as nutritionists can take the approach of what we are going to add!
5 . When it comes to sugar, do the math. I can guarantee that we are all consuming more added sugar than we think we are. Sugar can sneak up on us, some sources are obvious — cookies, cakes, candy — while others are less so — sauces, yogurt, any fat-free item, breakfast cereals, granola bars, tomato products etc. Make sure to do the math to see how much you are actually consuming.
I was asked by a mom to come talk to her husband about his feeding behaviors because she believed they were sabotaging her efforts to feed her boys a healthy diet. I did the math on her seven year old and basically he was consuming his weight in sugar every year just from the chocolate milk his dad brought home from the big box stores. His father was trying to love his children through treats as that is how he grew up. When I put 50 pounds of sugar on the counter he looked devastated and stopped this behavior immediately.
Do experts generally agree that merely choosing healthy foods isn’t sufficient, but that understanding how to consume them is key to unlocking their full health benefits? (For example, skins on/off, or cooked/raw, or whole grain/refined grain) Could you provide advice on how to approach this and sidestep common errors or misconceptions?”
There are lots of “experts” who have strong claims about foods. I am not sure how many actually agree with each other but I will present the facts as I know them from my research on the following:
- Raw versus cooked? Both. Some nutrients are more available in their raw form while others are released upon being heated and/or chopped.
- Skin off or skin on? For the fiber, the answer is unequivocally skin on as that is where most of the fiber resides.
- Whole grain versus refined grain. Experts agree on this. Hands down whole grains are healthier than processed grain as they contain more nutrients and all the fiber.
- Low fat or type of fat. Experts do not agree on this, with some saying consume little to no fat, while others say fat is healthy. Science points to the health benefits of consuming unsaturated fats (liquid fats) and limiting saturated (solid) fats. The research on fat has evolved over time, which has led to consumer confusion.
With the recent prominence of nutrition’s integration into healthcare, what’s your perspective on the collaborative approach between medical professionals, health coaches, and nutrition experts when it comes to delivering holistic patient care? Can you please explain?
I haven’t seen a recent rise in the integration of nutrition into healthcare. Traditionally, dietitians have been part of the healthcare team and that has not changed. Some healthcare centers have an integrative center where holistic methods are being practiced, and these have been steadily growing since the early 2000s. What I have seen is an uptake in the acceptance of health coaches onto the medical team but they vary in terms of their background — from nurses to certified coaches. I created food coaches to be the coach and translator between a dietary recommendation and the actual food that shows up on one’s plate that they are excited to eat.
It’s been suggested that using “food as medicine” has the potential to reduce healthcare costs by preventing disease severity. However, there’s concern about the affordability of healthier food options. What solutions do you believe could make nutritious choices accessible to everyone, ensuring that food truly becomes a form of medicine for all?
This rebranding of culinary medicine to food-is-medicine is very interesting and it is a field that I follow closely. It is part of the Biden-Harris National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which I applaud. The response however has been predictable with a focus on delivering medical meals to patients. That seems to be their number one strategy at this time, and it is one that I completely disagree with. I don’t believe this will solve the problem of ending hunger or nourishing everyone. I don’t see this approach as saving money, but I do see it lining the pockets of companies that create medically tailored meals. In addition, this approach is neither equitable nor inclusive as it focuses on the insured. It also does not empower individuals to take control of their health; it actually promotes a dependency on the healthcare system.
I firmly believe that the foundation of the food is medicine movement must be on 1. Increasing access to affordable healthy food and 2. Teaching people how to prepare the food so it pleases their palates and empowers them to take care of themselves and their family members. I say less focus less on the “medicine” part and more on the “food” part. The Bidden-Harris initiative did bring disparate groups together so we are all rowing in the same direction and that is essential as it will take a system-wide change to feed all equitably. Eating a healthy diet will indeed reduce healthcare costs, that has been demonstrated again and again. Instead of asking insurers to pay for medically tailored meals, perhaps they can pay for access to produce, healthy food, and cooking classes.
Everyone’s body is unique, and what works for one might not work for another. How does one navigate the vast array of nutritional advice available today to curate a diet tailored to individual needs, ensuring health and longevity?
Every body is different and while we all have similar nutrition needs, it’s the fine tuning that can be the difference between a diet that works for you and one that doesn’t. It’s also important to realize that food decisions are not just about our body’s needs. Does the food we put into our mouths follow our belief system? For example, for some eating only organic products is the most important, for others it’s fair treatment of animals, for others it’s important to buy local.
My best advice is #1 listen to your body and mind, is it telling you that your diet isn’t working? If it is not, #2 seek professional advice from a practitioner that you identify with. Is it someone with a holistic lens, someone who can focus on the emotional part of eating, someone who specializes in food addiction? Do you have a condition that requires a registered dietitian? Some of us can follow our gut (pun intended) while others need a more medicalized approach. Knowing what bucket you fall into is important. Then it’s all about informing yourself with the facts, listening to your body for what feels right, and asking for support when you need it. You don’t have to do it alone.
As our understanding of the intricate link between food and health continues to evolve, we’re curious to know which emerging trends or breakthroughs in nutritional science excite you the most. How do you envision these advancements shaping the future of healthcare?
I am most excited about the science pertaining to our gut microbiome. I feel like we discovered life on another planet and basically we did. There are organisms that live in our bodies that contribute more DNA than we do, that have a powerful influence on our health and yet we know very little about them. It has been established that microbes are essential in reducing the risk of chronic disease.
In the future, I see a new specialty in which various strains of microbes are prescribed for various diseases and conditions as well as to improve one’s response to treatment. Plus, I see the makeup of our microbiome as being able to predict which diseases we are headed towards before they occur.
In the meantime, the most important piece of dietary advice I can give is to make sure you are getting enough fiber in your diet (25 grams for women and 38 grams for men) and lots of colorful fruits and vegetables. The majority of us get nowhere near that amount of fiber — with American adults only consuming 10 to 15 grams a day. Make sure you are also consuming fermented food and eat foods that nourish the microbiome like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, and seaweed.
How can we better educate the public about the medicinal properties of food, and what role do professionals like you play in this educational journey?
I say it’s time to stop telling people what they can and cannot eat and show them how to prepare delicious meals within their budget. It’s time to let their tastebuds lead the way to healthy eating. Education, in my opinion has to turn towards culinary skill building. Period.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can find what I am up to at www.DrDebKennedy.com or on any of the following channels:
Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/drdebkennedy
Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/drdebkennedy
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra, a Certified Health Coach and wellness entrepreneur with 28 years of experience, is the visionary founder behind Crunchy Mama Box, a Mission-driven Marketplace promoting healthier, sustainable living. Committed to social engagement, Wanda supports causes like environmental preservation, animal welfare, mental health, human rights, and social responsibility. Through her work, Wanda writes passionately about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact, and eco-friendly living. She shares valuable insights, advocating holistic health and sustainability, and aims to simplify wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com