Insightful Wisdom: Leah de Souza-Thomas On The Thrive Practice On The Power of Food as Medicine

Insightful Wisdom: Leah de Souza-Thomas On The Thrive Practice On The Power of Food as Medicine

Educational Campaigns:

Sometimes, the barrier isn’t cost but a lack of knowledge about nutritious food choices and preparation. Public health campaigns can teach people about the benefits of various foods, how to prepare them, and how to make the most of a limited budget to procure nutritious items.

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 Leah de Souza-Thomas.

With two decades immersed in public health, Leah de Souza-Thomas has dedicated her career to helping individuals navigate the complexities of their health. A passionate advocate for personalised health strategies, she employs targeted lifestyle interventions to address the root causes of health concerns through her consultancy. With a unique vantage point that bridges broad public health domains and individualised care, Leah champions the transformative power of dietary choices, underscoring the profound link between food and overall well-being.

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 and grew up in London, UK, with my non-identical twin sister and parents. My parents are from the stunning island of Grenada in the Caribbean, and we spent school holidays in the Caribbean and the U.S. visiting with family.

As a child, I had, and to some extent still have an overactive immune system. Beyond eczema, severe food allergies and the seasonal battles with hay fever, I also had a few hospital stays due to asthma attacks as a child. Interestingly, my twin sister didn’t have these issues. This difference sparked my lifelong fascination with human biology and health patterns.

Thankfully, my health issues have improved. I haven’t needed an inhaler for over 15 years, hay fever is rare, and I no longer have eczema. These improvements were only possible because of my work to understand my health and the lifestyle changes I made to improve it.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I first got interested in epidemiology after watching the movie “Outbreak.” After completing my Masters, I worked as an epidemiologist at the UK’s Health Protection Agency, monitoring HIV and sexually transmitted infections.

Later, I shifted my focus to public health, specifically long-term, primarily lifestyle-driven, health issues. I recognised the need for both broad public health measures and individualised care. This led me to start The Thrive Practice, where I focused on personalised health improvement using nutrition and lifestyle medicine for my clients.

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?

Sometimes, I can be a little too ambitious for my own good. When I started the consultancy, I was determined to integrate cutting-edge technology to enhance my practice. On one occasion, I sellotaped a few software solutions together, believing I could create a seamless system for scheduling, health records, and communication.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how they would interact — or, more accurately, how they wouldn’t. My first client interaction using this “integrated” system was comedic at best. I had reminders clashing, records not syncing, and communication channels that seemed to operate in parallel dimensions.

I was lucky that my client found it amusing to see appointment reminders for odd hours of the night. I learned a big lesson: Ambition without strategy is chaos; tools don’t integrate just by will alone.

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?

1. Persistence:

I worked as a regional public health policy lead during the pandemic. The UK healthcare system has ways of working that aren’t easily changed. But they needed to change to better engage the people we served. We used online events to bridge the communication gap between health professionals and the communities, something that had never been done before. At these events, we learnt that some communities felt they were only being engaged to meet vaccination goals and that their needs were not being addressed. Hearing this and despite several setbacks and obstacles, my team and I successfully organised a health event in London to help community members access services they couldn’t.

2. Curiosity:

I’ve always been curious. It’s this curiosity that led me to a career in health sciences. Whether it’s a new nutrition trend, a research paper, or a client’s unique health profile, my curiosity drives me to delve deep, ensuring a comprehensive grasp and more effective interventions for my client.

3. Attention to Detail:

In holistic health and nutrition (as in many other fields, I’m sure), details can make all the difference. Being detail-oriented ensures that nothing slips through the cracks. A vivid example was when I reviewed a client’s food diary. On the surface, their diet seemed impeccable. However, a deep dive revealed they consumed a specific artificial sweetener daily, which we discovered was linked to their recurring digestive issues. Paying attention to details helps me find these small but important things.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’m working on a few different projects, from personal health plans to big community programmes.

1. Wellness Workshops for Individuals:

Planning is critical to good health. I’m working on a wellness planning workshop to equip individuals with actionable tools, knowledge, and techniques to improve their health. By helping individuals blueprint their wellness trajectories, we’re not just addressing health issues but assisting people to feel empowered to care for themselves.

2. Wellness for Businesses:

I partner with businesses to conduct in-house workshops focusing on various facets of holistic health that align with the needs of their employees. These sessions educate and offer engaging challenges that gamify wellness, making healthy practices informative and enjoyable. This work ensures that health becomes a regular part of daily life, helping people work better and feel good.

3. London inspire Programme:

As with many other places, unfair and avoidable health differences exist across the London population and between different groups. Stark differences are seen between Black Caribbean & African communities and other groups. The COVID-19 pandemic accentuated this divide even more. Recognising the need for change and acting on a wealth of research, the London inspire Programme was created, and I am thrilled to be part of the steering group. The programme champions health equity, amplifying the voices of Black Caribbean and African communities and fostering active engagement with wider systems that shape health outcomes.

Across all these projects, my goal is to provide people with the knowledge and tools they need to be their healthiest selves.

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?

My health journey wasn’t by chance; it’s been a systematic and passionate pursuit. It began because of my health issues. But it evolved into academic studies in biomedical sciences, modern epidemiology and public health.

While this macroscopic perspective was crucial, I quickly realised that addressing complex health challenges also demanded a more granular, individualistic approach. This led me to functional medicine and integrative functional nutrition. My expertise in public health and personalised strategies allows me to understand overarching health determinants and individualised needs, and my training lets me use science to make personal health recommendations. I’m dedicated to showing people how nutrition and lifestyle medicine can transform health.

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?

Firstly, there’s too much information out there. A new health trend, diet or research finding seems to pop up daily. It’s confusing and often contradictory; people just don’t know what’s right for them.

Next, we all want quick and easy. After a long, hard day at work, ordering food is easy, and food delivery apps make this all too convenient for us. In addition, many people have had their taste buds hijacked by the addictive qualities of ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which are engineered for maximum mouthfeel and taste but aren’t always healthy.

The places we live and the people around us also affect our choices; external influences continuously sway us. Being in environments with healthy food options and friends who eat well can help. Another critical environmental factor is the existence of “food deserts” — areas where affordable and nutritious food is hard to access, making it more likely people will opt for unhealthy options.

Finally, there’s the profound emotional connection with food. Food isn’t just a source of sustenance; it evokes memories and comforts in moments of distress and, for some, even serves as a coping mechanism. And it’s often unhealthy foods that we seek out for emotional support.

All of these factors make it difficult to put into practice what we know intellectually.

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.

There are lots of factors that determine our health, but nutrition plays a huge role. Food is not just about calories; it tells our body how to work. For example, foods like turmeric or oily fish can reduce inflammation, which is linked to several health conditions. On the other hand, a diet high in processed foods and sugar can make inflammation much worse.

Good nutrition helps our whole body. The human body is an interconnected system, not just a collection of separate parts. For someone with heart problems, a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids supports heart health and improves brain function, joint health, and more. People with health problems can feel better with the right foods. They can have more energy, sleep better, and enjoy life more.

But food is just one part of the equation. We must also manage stress, move more, and have good mental health. As a health professional, I’ve seen how the right foods can change people’s lives, especially those with long-term health problems. While medication is beneficial, “Let food be thy medicine” also holds true. Good food can prevent and treat health problems. It is key to a healthy life.

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 . Moringa — Good for diabetes and cholesterol: Moringa, known as the “drumstick tree,” is used in Ayurvedic medicine. It has blood sugar and cholesterol-lowering capabilities. Moringa grows readily in Grenada, and my family members have seen good results using it.

2 . Hibiscus sabdariffa — Helps control blood pressure: Known as “sorrel” in the Caribbean, this isn’t just a tasty drink. Numerous studies have revealed its potent antioxidant and anti-high blood pressure properties. It’s also used in Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol and imbalanced blood fats.

3 . Aloe Vera — Helps Digestion: Aloe vera is not just for sunburn. Its soothing properties can also help to relieve problems like irritable bowel syndrome or leaky gut (intestinal permeability). I’ve used aloe vera to support digestive health in a few clients who reported improvements.

4 . Medicinal Mushrooms — Boosts Immunity: Mushrooms like shiitake, maitake and reishi help to influence the immune response. I had a client who suffered from repeat infections. After introducing a blend of these mushrooms into their diet, my client noted they were sick less often and felt more energised.

5 . IFM’s Core Food Plan — Overall Health: This plan, developed by the Institute for Functional Medicine, is about eating healthy, natural foods. I’ve seen people lose weight, feel happier, improve their test results and have more energy by following this dietary pattern. It uses the basic principle of food as medicine and includes whole foods, plenty of fibre, and good fats.

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?

Eating healthy foods is great, but how you prepare and cook them matters too.

Once produce is picked, it starts losing nutrients. While eating fruits and some vegetables raw keeps most nutrients, it’s not always the best way. Some foods, like vegetables, grains, legumes and animal proteins, need cooking to be safe and easier to digest. Cooking can reduce some nutrients but make others easier for our bodies to use.

To maximise the nutritional content of your food, cook food gently. Use low heat, minimal liquid and don’t cook for too long. When frying, use fats that can handle high heat. If you use a microwave, glass or ceramic dishes are safest. And for water-based cooking, try also to consume the water the food is cooked in, like in soups, to keep the nutrients.

Different cooking methods have different benefits:

  • Baking and Roasting: This keeps most of the food’s nutrients.
  • Slow Cooking: This is good for meals where you consume the liquid, too.
  • Simmering and Poaching: These are softer than boiling and good for foods that need gentle preparation.

But remember, no matter how healthy your food is, your body needs to be able to digest and use the nutrients from food for it to be of any use to you. Good digestive function is key to getting the most from your meals.

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?

It’s good to hear that. In the UK, while the public is increasingly aware that good nutrition is vital for health, many family doctors (GPs) don’t focus on it. They’re busy, have lots of patients, and their training often focuses on managing symptoms.

Working together can help with:

  • Better Understanding: When different health practitioners work together, they better understand a patient’s needs. Doctors treat the illness, nutritionists advise on food, and health coaches help with healthy habits.
  • Consistent Care: Everyone involved can talk to each other, so the patient gets care that matches their needs. A doctor’s medication regimen can complement a nutritionist’s dietary recommendations, ensuring they work in synergy.
  • Overall Health: This approach embodies two key facts: Health isn’t just the absence of disease. And health happens outside of your doctor’s surgery in daily life. This approach helps people become healthier overall and might reduce the need for medicine and interventions.

To make this team approach common, doctors must recognise the value of working with nutritionists and health coaches. Nutritionists in doctor’s offices or regular meetings between doctors, nutritionists, and health coaches would benefit patients. This way, patients get care that looks at their health, not just their illness.

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?

Here are a few ideas to make healthy food available for everyone:

1. Cheaper Healthy Food:

Governments can offer subsidies to farmers who grow fruits, vegetables and other healthy staples, so these foods cost less. This would make them more competitive against cheaper, less healthy alternatives. Offering benefits for low-income families to purchase these items can also be effective. In the UK, there’s a programme called Healthy Start which provides this support.

2. Community Gardens:

Local areas can have community gardens where everyone helps grow fresh food. This includes access to nutritious food, fostering a sense of community, and teaching agricultural skills. There are also city farming initiatives, like the one on the roof of Boston Medical Center.

3. Educational Campaigns:

Sometimes, the barrier isn’t cost but a lack of knowledge about nutritious food choices and preparation. Public health campaigns can teach people about the benefits of various foods, how to prepare them, and how to make the most of a limited budget to procure nutritious items.

4. Support Local Food:

Supporting local farmers and markets can reduce the transportation and storage costs associated with food, leading to fresher, more affordable produce for consumers. This also boosts the local economy and gives people better food options.

5. Tackle Food Deserts:

Food deserts are areas where affordable and nutritious food is hard to obtain. Governments can encourage supermarkets and other shops to open in these areas or have mobile markets that bring fresh food to these areas.

Price can be a barrier to people eating well, but with the right plans, everyone can benefit from food that keeps them healthy. Laying the groundwork for a healthier society and reducing the economic and societal burden of preventable diseases.

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?

Here’s one way to approach it:

1. Know Yourself:

Reflect on your health goals, any health conditions, and energy levels. If you can, get a health check-up.

2. Consult Professionals:

Talk to a dietitian or nutritionist. They can advise you based on your situation and needs.

3. Learn Nutrition Basics:

Get to know the roles of carbs, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals in your diet and how they affect the body.

4. Listen to Your Body:

Notice how foods affect you. Track your meals and how they make you feel to find any problems. Symptoms like bloating, fatigue, skin issues, or mood fluctuations may indicate food intolerances or imbalances in your diet.

5. Avoid Diet Trends:

Be careful with popular diets. They might not be right or healthy for you. Approach new dietary trends cautiously, researching their long-term effects and compatibility with your needs.

6. Personalise Your Diet:

Some tests can tell how your genes affect your nutrition needs. This is still new, but it can offer personal insights.

7. Stay Updated and Adjust:

Nutritional science is an ever-evolving field. Keep learning from reliable sources and adjust your diet as you age or your life changes.

8. Think Whole Health:

Food is just one part of the health picture. Incorporate regular movement, stress management, adequate sleep, and mental well-being practices into your routine for a comprehensive approach to health.

9. Limit Your Info:

There’s a lot out there and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Stick to trusted sources and avoid jumping between trends without proper understanding.

Remember, nutrition is personal. Listen to your body and find what’s best for you.

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?

Here are some exciting health trends:

1. Personalised Nutrition with Genetics:

Applying the latest genomic science to enable a more preventative, proactive and personalised approach to health is game-changing. We can create diets that fit our unique needs using our genetic information. This means more specific health advice based on our DNA.

2. The Gut Microbiome and Health:

Recent years have seen a surge in interest regarding the gut microbiome’s role in everything from mental health to immune function. As we uncover more about how dietary choices influence our microbiome, there will likely be a move towards foods and supplements designed to promote a diverse and healthy gut flora, shaping treatments for a range of conditions beyond digestive health.

3. Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals:

There’s a rise in foods that aren’t just good to eat but also improve our health. These are functional foods — foods containing substances or live microorganisms that have possible health-enhancing or disease-preventing benefits — and nutraceuticals, which are foods or parts that offer medical and health benefits. These foods can help prevent or treat specific health issues.

4. Tech in Nutrition:

Devices and apps can help us monitor what we eat and how it affects us. This gives us real-time feedback on dietary choices based on health goals or conditions; technology will revolutionise how we approach nutrition (and lifestyle!).

How will these shape the future of healthcare?

Preventing, Not Just Treating:

I envision a shift from a predominantly reactive healthcare model to a preventive one as we begin to understand the intricate links between diet, genetics, and health outcomes. This will enable health professionals to guide patients towards making proactive dietary choices that prevent potential issues.

Using Tech for Whole Health:

With real-time data on nutritional intake, activity levels, sleep patterns, and more, doctors can see our complete health picture, leading to better advice and tailored treatment plans.

Food Meets Medicine:

The food and health worlds might work together more, leading to foods designed for our health needs.

Ultimately, the future of healthcare could be more personal, focused on prevention, and use the best of food and tech.

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?

Integrating nutritional education into schools is crucial. By teaching children early about the benefits of therapeutic foods and wise dietary choices, we lay a foundation for lifelong health. Professionals can collaborate with schools to ensure lessons are up-to-date and holistic.

The media’s power cannot be ignored. Partnering with both traditional and digital media channels can help share fact-based information. Professionals can spread knowledge through engaging visuals, documentaries, and snackable video content. Teaming up with influential personalities can further boost the message’s reach.

Engaging with communities directly through workshops and webinars offers a personal touch. It also allows real-time interactions, addressing misconceptions and offering clear, actionable advice.

Educating the public on food’s medicinal qualities requires a blend of strategies. As professionals, our role is to light the way, ensuring a well-informed, health-aware society.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thanks for asking. Your readers can learn more about my work on my website, They can also follow me on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, and LinkedIn; I’m @TheThrivePractice.

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 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 .


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