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Building resilience through nutrition

Kolasa, Kathy

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Dear readers: Happy Thanksgiving. I am thankful that Chris Crotty a soon to be physician and former service member volunteered to share his story of Building Resilience Through Nutrition. As you gather with family and friends this holiday season, share your tips of living a high quality, healthy life. Here is Chris’ inspiration.

Medical school has been an amazing journey thus far; helping patients maintain or regain health is very rewarding. However, many ailments from which my patients suffer could have been lessened, if not prevented, if people had made different lifestyle choices. I am not referring to tobacco use or alcohol abuse, although these clearly apply. I am referring to nutrition, which may very well be the most underemphasized player in our modern medical system.

Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician considered by many to be the father of western medicine, had clarity on the importance of nutrition. He wrote: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” While we do not take this literally, we should strongly consider the major role nutrition has on our health because eating healthy builds our overall resilience.

Resilience is our ability to bounce back after a stress is applied to us. The stress can be physical, mental, social, or spiritual; all of these, though, are interrelated. We can plan ahead to manage or avoid life’s foreseeable stresses, but life will confront us with illness, loss of loved ones, financial hardships, or career changes, just to name a few. Consistent healthy eating behaviors help protect us during these unavoidable, major life events.

At the microscopic level, our body is programmed to carry out its physiological functions, such as building and repairing tissue and maintaining chemical balances. We give our body the tools to accomplish these functions through eating nutrient-rich, diverse, real foods. Without some determination and planning, this is honestly harder than it might seem. High-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar, and processed foods are everywhere we turn. Their widespread availability, deceptively low price, long shelf-life, and engineered taste can make it difficult for us to look elsewhere. However, these foods often are nutrient-poor, make our organ systems suffer, and in the end, leave us vulnerable.

We all know we should eat right or better. But, our relationship with food is personal, emotional, habitual, and often affected by our culture, which includes upbringing, the people we live with, and even where we live. For most, getting the right foods on our plate is not as simple as “just eat right.” Yet, it is what we need to do if we hope to have health and longevity.

As I talk to my patients about nutrition, I cannot help but reflect on my own journey with food. My single mother of three boys sacrificed so much to raise, protect, and feed us well. I never went to school hungry; in fact, I never went anywhere hungry. I over-ate constantly as a child and although I was athletic, I struggled with my weight, how my clothes fit, and my resulting self-image. Even at the age of ten, I unsuccessfully tried to persuade my own mother to admit I was fat. I grew weary of it and as a teenager started reading to educate myself. I discovered eating the right foods in the correct proportions could help, and when I finally tried it, it worked. Through my adult years, not only has the right amount of nutritionally balanced food helped me stay fit, it has also helped me stay resilient through tough times.

As a military aviator, my time in austere, unfamiliar, and hostile environments required life and death decision making which challenged my body and mind. Spinal surgery after being injured flying fighter jet aircraft tested my body’s ability to heal. As a local volunteer firefighter, fighting intense fires in the hot NC summer sun put my organ systems to the test every single time. After retiring from the Air Force and entering medical school as a husband and father of two, I faced a rigorous curriculum, which often left me short on sleep and seeking to find the right work-life balance.

Through all of this, I have been perfectly imperfect with everything, including occasionally choosing foods for taste or convenience. Nobody is or will be perfect, yet I have learned after years of failure to make healthy eating habits my default everywhere - in the grocery store, at restaurants, and even on-the-go. I base my healthy eating habits on two principles: 1) what to choose and 2) how much to eat. In the grocery store, I stay on the outside perimeter of the store where I select vegetables, fruits, lean meats, milk, eggs, low-fat cheese, yogurt, and whole-grain/wheat breads; I actually spend most of my time in the produce section. I limit going down the aisles and you likely know why- cookies, crackers, chips, sodas, and candy. At restaurants, I immediately ask for a to-go container when my food arrives, as portion sizes are usually inappropriately large. Moreover, I have several on-the-go places I choose based on healthier available options. Ingredient listings and Nutrition Fact labels empower me to discount any misleading marketing on product containers. I had to form these habits, and after seeing their results, they have become my foundation to stay healthy and resilient.

If you feel like you are struggling with your knowledge about or relationship with food, I strongly recommend you make an appointment to talk to your doctor or registered dietitian about how you can build your resilience through nutrition. It may be the most important, life-changing, life-preserving discussion you ever have.


Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.


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