Dietitians hold a secret knowledge that few can match — even doctors. While graduating, medical students continue to rate their nutrition knowledge as “inadequate.” According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, dietitians hold the magic formulas that can help Americans bring their cholesterol levels down, lose those stubborn pounds without starving, find foods that won’t aggravate their tummy troubles and so much more.
“The principles of good eating are simple,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian and manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. “But everyone is different, has a different lifestyle, has different health issues to consider. You need to find the right foods for you, but that’s not always so simple — even if you are working in concert with your doctor.”
Take Brian Abato*, age 50. In 1987, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and ultimately had to have most of his large intestine removed. When he was released from the hospital, his doctors sent him home with a “do not eat” list of foods — it essentially boiled down to “nothing spicy, nothing with flavor,” he says. So the first-generation Italian had to begin politely declining his mother’s homemade pasta and other favorite Chinese and Mexican dishes. Fortunately, the doctors also sent him home with information from the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, where he eventually did meet a nutrition expert who was well-versed in his disease. From him, Abato learned that it was okay to eat the foods he loved, as long as they didn’t stir up problems.
Abato’s not alone in discovering the benefits of professional nutrition advice. We found other people striving to meet wellness goals or manage health conditions who’d sought the help of a dietitian and asked them to share their success stories.
(*Certain names have been changed at the individual’s request.)
MYSTERY SOLVED: Jo Anne Crouse, 54
In 2000, Jo Anne was a busy owner of a yoga studio in Virginia Beach. But in an ironic twist of fate, while she worked to help her clients relax and feel better her own health was taking a nosedive. She started having abdominal pains that progressively worsened to include frequent vomiting, fatigue, sleeplessness, hair loss, vision problems and more.
“Everything just escalated, and my doctors could not figure out what was bothering me, nor offer medications that didn’t bring on a new set of issues,” she says. Doctors did pinpoint severe food allergies, but that knowledge didn’t provide much in the way of relief. Gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, many nuts and seeds, even green beans triggered her allergies. She ultimately had to take a sabbatical in 2005 to focus on her healing. Toward the end of that time, in 2008, she met a registered dietitian and certified trainer, Jim White. With his help, she did a complete “pantry clean-out” of her kitchen and switched to a mostly plant-based diet.
“As my energy increased,” she says, “we’d go back to the drawing board to tweak my food plan — sometimes reintroducing a food, or adding in a new one.” Today, Jo Anne says she has “a body I didn’t know existed.” Her stomach woes are a thing of the past, as are many of her other symptoms. In fact, she feels so strongly about the important role smarter food choices have played in her healing that she’s become a holistic health coach.
Biggest surprise: “Prior to getting sick, I’d always considered myself a healthy eater. But, through Jim, I have a better understanding of proper portions and the ways different foods interact for positive and negative results.”
Biggest takeaway: “What you eat has a direct impact on how you feel.”
TAILORED TO SIZE: Kirk Kozero, 54
Like many Americans, Kirk bounced in and out of shape most of his adult life. But in late 2011 and early 2012, two surgeries (one to reattach a bicep tendon and another to correct back problems) left him sidelined. The pounds on this financial marketing exec from Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, quickly piled on. “I’m 5’6”, weighed about 190, and I had to have my pants taken out twice. That’s when I finally decided I had to do something different,” he says.
On a friend’s tip, Kirk met with Kristen Bentson, founder of YouAnew Lifestyle Nutrition in Bethlehem. “I’d followed trend diets in the past — a little of everything — but nothing had ever made a true difference,” he says. Walking out of his first session with Bentson, however, he felt confident he’d made the right call. “We never once talked about dieting,” he says. “She determined my metabolic rate, calculated how much I’d need to eat and burn off each day, and we discussed the core principals of nutrition. Through her I learned how to eat, when to eat, what to eat, how to read a label, how to eat out. If you want to know about the balance of protein, fats, carbs and fiber, I can tell you!”
Not only has Kirk lost 35 pounds (five more and he’ll have reached his goal weight), he’s had to make five trips back to that tailor. “I don’t think there’s any more material for them to work with,” he jokes.
Biggest surprise: “I’ve discovered a sense of taste that I’m not sure I ever realized I was missing. I wasn’t eating for enjoyment, I was eating out of boredom and stress.”
Biggest takeaway: “Within a couple of weeks, I noticed a dramatic improvement in my energy level. I’m also less stressed and sleep better. This experience has given me more confidence in all areas of my life.”
CALMING IBS: John Tatum*, 36
Imagine a seemingly never-ending bout of a nervous stomach, painful bloating and diarrhea. That’s daily life for those struggling with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). John, a graphic designer from Naples, Florida, went undiagnosed for years. But while the satisfaction of learning in 2004 exactly what he had brought peace of mind, he didn’t find relief until earlier this year when his doctor sent him for food sensitivity tests.
His reactivity to nearly 200 foods was tested, and based on the results, a dietitian trained in the LEAP Anti-Inflammatory Eating Plan set about finding nutritious foods that John could tolerate. (LEAP stands for “lifestyle eating and performance” — the plan was created by Oxford Biomedical Technologies in Florida, which trains dietitians who work with sufferers of IBS, fibromyalgia and migraines.)
“One by one, we eliminated foods and then in some cases were able to reintroduce them to my eating based on how I reacted and follow-up testing,” John explains. “It’s helped me regain my gut function — I don’t have the extreme symptoms of IBS anymore — and I feel better than I have in years.” He now seeks out organic vegetables and fruits and stays away from genetically modified and processed foods.
Biggest surprise: “I didn’t realize that you can develop sensitivities to foods that you eat repeatedly.”
Biggest takeaway: “I still have some time to go on this plan, and I hope to be fully healed by the end, but I’ve learned that choosing the right food is important.”
TAKING CONTROL OF DIABETES: Jane Hughes, 61
Diagnosed with diabetes as a young adult, Jane learned early on that what she eats most definitely matters. “It wasn’t a matter of trying to eat right; I had to eat right,” says the Ypsilanti, Michigan-based gymnastics instructor. While Jane says she hasn’t met with a dietitian in several years, what she learned from the one she did work with decades ago sticks with her.
“When you’re diagnosed with diabetes — and I have a severe case — you can’t just watch your carbs or watch your sugars. That’s not enough. You have to look at the whole nutrition picture. And that’s what my nutritionist taught me.”
For example, Jane learned how to look at the bigger carbohydrate picture, making sure to include nutrient-dense sources like fruit, whole grains and low-fat dairy. She made swaps to her protein choices, and long before healthy fats were making headlines, she’d switched to canola and olive oils. She also learned to make adjustments to her meals if her activity level changed. For example, she won’t take a long walk on an empty stomach. And if she knows her day is going to be jammed, she’ll keep portable snacks nearby to prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
“Every day is going to be a little different, so you have to be ready and able to make little tweaks,” she says. “I am on medication for my diabetes, always will be, but what and when I eat still makes a difference.”
Biggest surprise: “That all sugars and all carbs aren’t the same.”
Biggest takeaway: “Learning to pay close attention to what I eat, even writing it down, has been invaluable. And in some ways I think having to manage my diabetes helped me make better meals for my family.”