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Food as medicine

By the time most of us think about how our diet affects our health, we are usually due for some needed changes. For Moda Health nutritionist, Taylor Zerull, thinking about healthy nutrition started earlier than with most.

As a teenager, poor eating habits took a toll on her confidence and how she felt about herself. “When I was younger I was overweight,” she said. “I didn‘t know what to eat or how to take care of my body. I wasn‘t comfortable with myself and always felt separate from my friends because of my weight.”

Her early struggles with weight were exacerbated when she was diagnosed with ADHD in high school. A couple years later in college, she found herself facing a treatable form of skin cancer. By her mid-twenties, Taylor was eating healthier and taking steps to understand how her diet affects her health.

“Being 23 and having to face my mortality at that age is not easy,” she said. “But now, I think it was a blessing because I started taking my health more seriously. Everything I went through at an early age started my interest in nutrition. I made some big lifestyle changes. That was a major test for myself in thinking that food is medicine. Today, I feel really lucky for having gone through that because it gave me a reason to live healthier and to share my experience with others.”

Linking nutrition and health

After earning a Master‘s in Science Nutrition from the National University of Natural Medicine, she now applies her expertise to helping others understand the connection between nutrition and health.

“There‘s a very direct connection between what we eat and our health,” she said. “I think people don‘t always think about it because food is emotional. We often just reach for what is convenient. The problem is we can end up causing a bigger problem when we don‘t pay attention to it. The food we eat is where we get our nourishment from, but it‘s also how we can prevent and treat underlining and chronic diseases. The more care we take in what we put into our bodies, the more we‘re going to get out of ourselves.”

Taylor‘s holistic view of nutrition goes beyond just eating right. She said it‘s the combination of the food we eat and our lifestyle that has the biggest impact on our health. With over 200 hours of yoga instructor training, she also teaches the importance of mind-body health.

“Holistic nutrition looks at the bigger picture and examines all aspects of your life,” she said. “Instead of just looking at the food piece, it‘s important to understand why people eat the way they do. Nutrition is emotional; it‘s habitual and celebratory. Sometimes, we eat when we‘re tired or stressed. Along with food, we need to feed our bodies with experiences, people and interactions, or just spending time by yourself. Sharing quality time with others that you love and care about is so enrichening. You can eat exactly what you are supposed, but you also have to fill those other aspects of your life. It‘s important to understand how they all fit together.”

Healthy eating tips

While every physical body is different, Taylor says it‘s important to have a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables to keep your mood and body stable. She provided a few tips for developing healthier eating habits:

  1. Start small. So many people go into a diet to revamp everything. This is overwhelming and unsustainable. Taylor‘s advice is to start small. Pick one or two things such as drinking more water each day, cutting back on red meat or bringing healthy snacks to work. By repeating small nutrition habits, over time it will become automatic. Once you‘ve made one change, you can add something else. This builds confidence in knowing that you can make healthy changes in your life.
  2. Read food labels and eat fiber-rich foods. If a food label contains more than five ingredients, particularly ones you don‘t recognize, Taylor says you don‘t have to eat it. Instead, look up the ingredients and find out what‘s in it. She said it is important to eat fiber-rich foods such as black beans, broccoli and avocados to help keep your blood sugar levels stable. Plus, they help us stay full longer, and prevent us from falling into a “hangry” crash.
  3. Avoid processed and refined sugar. Processed sugar is found in things like white bread, white pasta, cookies and cakes. Taylor cautions that sugar is very addictive. For example, if you have sugar at the same time of day for two straight days, your body will crave it the next day at the same time. In the long run, reducing processed and refined sugars can prevent a number of health conditions, including diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer‘s disease and depression.
  4. Set yourself up for success. Set reasonable, manageable goals for yourself. Anticipate food temptations and have fallbacks. Instead of eating unhealthy snacks at work, bring nuts and keep them at your desk. Taylor says when we are willing to recognize our shortcomings, we have the ability to change things for the better.

Taylor added that most people don‘t start thinking about what they eat until there‘s a problem. For example, their favorite pair of pants no longer fit or they have less mobility than they used to. She said changing our eating habits can be like a 12-step program — everything starts with building awareness and putting intention into what we eat.

“You have to start by recognizing that nutrition is a thing, and that is does impact other areas of your life,” she said. “Eating healthy is a challenge in today‘s on-the-go society. We tend to go for what is convenient rather than what is healthy. As creatures of habit, it can be difficult to break out of unhealthy routines. Taking time to prepare healthier food alternatives takes effort, but anybody can do it, at any time. It really comes down to bringing awareness to it at any age. It‘s never too late to start.”

Moda Health Months: Our personal health stories Read more personal health stories on our Moda Health Community page.

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