This week on Rootstock Radio, host Theresa Marquez speaks with Ashley Koff, RD. Ashley is a registered dietician, award-winning nutrition expert, better health enabler, speaker and consultant. She has been a guest on the Dr. Oz Show, the Today Show, FOX and ABC News, and contributed to the Huffington Post.
Ashley’s take on nutrition–and life, really–is refreshingly realistic. She believes that “in the pursuit of ‘perfect’ we have really rendered ourselves perfectly unhealthy and perfectly frustrated.” To this end she encourages people to make better health choices with the understanding that perfection is often unattainable. “Let’s choose organic more often, especially for the things you consume most frequently,” she suggests, qualifying that it’s not fair to just say ‘eat organic’ when organic food is still not widely available and attainable for many people in the United States today.
However, Ashley really does believe that the field of nutrition as a whole is moving toward an understanding “that our health and the health of the environment and what farmers choose to do–and don’t do–and what support they get is all integrally related.” And she is adamant in saying that anyone who is a healthcare practitioner should be involved in the environmental space because, as Ashley puts it, “your best medicine is better nutrition.” When people ask Ashley how she has time for environmental activism on top of her work in nutrition, she responds succinctly and incredulously: “How do I not?!”
Interview with Ashley Koff
Aired January 2, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Ashley Koff, who is a registered dietitian, award-winning nutrition expert, a better-health enabler, a speaker, and a consultant. Ashley has been a guest on the Dr. Oz Show, the Today show, Fox and ABC News, and has contributed to the Huffington Post. Ashley, when do you have time to go to sleep?
ASHLEY KOFF: I know! I sleep [unclear—awesome?] because I get in enough magnesium. That is like, it was a game changer for me in my mid-twenties. So we can certainly talk about that. But you’re right. You have to make it a priority.
TM: You know, talking about organic and farming and food and health is certainly one of our favorite things to do here. And so really we all, I bet every one of our listeners out there, are always trying to figure out, “Gee, how can I do a better job with my health?” And certainly sleeping is a priority. And you said you learned that in your twenties. I thought all twenty-year-olds had some deep sleep dysfunctionality, especially those in college.
AK: Right, exactly. So first let me back up and say that one of my favorite things about getting to talk to someone like you, and really having been involved, like you and so many of your farmers and the different organizations that I’ve interacted with, they’ve really been my teachers throughout the time of becoming a dietitian, for one really important reason. And it was what you brought up in your introduction. So first, thank you, and thank you to all the farmers. And second of all—and the organizations that support farmers. But the second piece to that is really that I think we’re in a different place.
I became a dietitian about a little over twenty years ago, and it was not a time period where we understood that our health and the health of the environment and what farmers do, choose to do and don’t do, and what support they get, is all integrally related. And so one of the things for me—I mean, I used to be called, like, “Oh, that’s that dietitian that like cares about the environment too,” you know? And it was like, not only is that not a great title, but it was, you know, when people would say like, “Oh, she’s the one that cares about organic,” I’m like, “So I can’t be talking to you about your health without telling you what foods to choose, without talking to you about the sourcing of those foods, the health of the farmers, the health of our planet.” So I’m just really excited about this time period in our nutrition history in the United States, because we are starting to understand that whole integral piece. So it’s a really fun, exciting place.
I will now go over to the twenty-year-old who didn’t get good sleep. I actually was in a worse place there. I had panic attacks, I had anxiety, I had a lot of things that I actually didn’t really understand, and I was highly functioning. So I think you can do that in your twenties. I was an advertising executive at a big ad agency in New York City. I also went out at night and did all these things. But I was perfectly unhealthy. And I think that, you know, in your twenties you can mask a bit of that, especially early.
But one of the things that I didn’t understand is how your sleep and your digestion and your food and all of these things were so interrelated. And it took me on a personal path that ultimately led to me becoming a dietitian, to understand that the antibiotics that I was given as a kid and the medications for other things I later had in life—you know, skin stuff and whatever—that were all byproducts of that piece, had really left my digestive system without the nutrients and the resources and the ability to properly process those resources for my body. They were leaving it in a place where I was not, my body and as a result my mind wasn’t functioning well.
So sleep, for me, is, you know, the fact that I sleep amazing today is like a card-carrying… Like I brag about it! If I don’t have a great night’s sleep I’m like, okay, I know what to do. And I might hit the coffee or some of these things. But my sleep routine and my sleep is so reated. A lot of people say, you know, I’m 43, they’re like, “Your skin looks great, you have great energy.” And I’m like, “Let me talk to you about sleep and let me talk to you about nutrition.” You know, they’re so related.
So don’t wait till your mid-twenties is probably the lesson from that part. If anyone’s listening who’s younger, like reach out to me on my website. Let’s get started now, because I would hate for you to have the challenges that I had if they are preventable. You know, we’ all learn from our life experiences, so…
TM: Well, I can see, Ashley, that you’ve really worked hard at trying to figure out, how do I talk to people about behavior without making them feel like, you know, you have to make perfect choices? And so I’m really intrigued by your “Make better, not perfect, choices.” And maybe you can talk to our listeners a little bit about what that means to you, “Better, not perfect choices.”
AK: Yeah. I like to say that, you know, in the pursuit of perfect, we have really rendered ourselves perfectly unhealthy and perfectly frustrated.
TM: Oh dear!
AK: And I think that… I mean, it’s so true… You know, it’s a head nod, like I get audiences that are like, “Oh my gosh, thank you,” you know, because it is really easy. I hear this all the time when I hear people on television or I see people, their messages on Instagram or even their tweets, and it’s like “Eat this and you will get that,” or “Don’t do this and you will be this.” And it’s like, so that actually is not true! Like it’s simple, but it’s not that simple.
And when we oversimplify things or we put it into the context of “This is the perfect answer,” the one… I’m not sure that “perfect” works anywhere in life—I’m just going to lay that out there. It might be my Midwestern upbringing or being a middle child, who knows. But I was very comfortable with my A’s or my B+’s, let’s put it that way. But you know, I think, in that space of when we look at what “better” is more often, we know that, so for example, better nutrition is about making better, not perfect, choices more often. There might be a time where you make a “perfect” choice, but if that is like once a month and the other 30 days—and, you know, 30 times 390 eating occasions or 150 eating occasions—you’re not making good choices, there’s no way that that perfect choice is going to mean anything.
And I think that we, the other part about perfect is, in the twenty-first century we have a really big problem. I started off talking about sleep and talked about magnesium. We have a really big problem with stress. And stress is actually a totally normal physiologic response. When the body is excited or experiencing something that is stressful, it can be good or bad. I mean, I love stress—it’s what helps me hopefully do awesome on this interview or helps me get on [unclear] or do these things. And I understand that other stresses are not so awesome. But when it happens, calcium, which is a super-important mineral, passes into the cells. And when it does that, it tenses up. And the way I describe that for people is it’s like forming a bicep, right? Like when you hold your bicep. Now, we all love to flex our muscles, especially if we have them, and we love to show it off. But if you did that for like literally more than a minute and a half, your arm is going to be tired. You might just be bored, but over time you will fatigue and you will naturally relax.
Well, we don’t want to wait until we’re so fatigued and naturally relax. The way that we’re designed to is, when the stress passes, we’re meant to relax. And that relaxation, that letting go of that bicep muscle, is what magnesium does. Magnesium should be in all of your cells to push the calcium back out and be like, “Cool—you had your stressed-out moment, we got excited, we tensed up, we paid attention, we did whatever we needed to do. And now magnesium is back here to restore the calm.”
And that balance is so important for us to understand, because in the twenty-first century we have so much stress that we’ve created by being stimulated, you know, all the time with different gadgets and experiences and, you know, things we can think about, and all of these different stressors. And so it’s so important that we learn about pieces like that. And so for me, when I think about “perfect” or when I think about communicating anything to anyone in the space of nutrition, I always just want to talk about “better,” because first of all it just feels less stressful. I love the word, it looks pretty, I like the two t’s, like it’s balanced. It’s just a nice-looking word. But it also just, you know, you think about it and you’re like, “You know what? I can do that. Like I can make a better choice.”
You know, I like to teach people that, you know, no matter where you—and I’ve worked with patients for twenty years. So I had a patient—one of my favorite stories—diabetic, he was a mailman, still actually is a mailman working in downtown Los Angeles. At the time—it’s a little bit different now—at the time there was literally no grocery store in downtown Los Angeles. And also the only thing that they had that he could go into, from a work standpoint, was a vending machine. And then, you know, while he was out—and you would think, oh, a mailman he gets to walk a lot—he was actually driving more and also dealing with traffic. And so he was just in this total perfect storm of diabetes waiting to happen and then diabetes happening.
And he had no money, and when he called me, he said, “I really want to work with you.” And he said, “So, you know, I don’t know if I can afford you.” And the luxury of working for myself was that, you know, I always charge someone cause I want them to be motivated, but he paid me a very little amount of money. I think we did $10 or $15 for a session and my normal rate at that point was about $300. And he took the bus to come see me, and he only ever saw me twice.
And the greatest part about it was, the first time we met we talked about what he could—what are the better choices he could make in a vending machine. And then the second time we talked about the better choices he could make when his brother took him grocery shopping and when he went to a farmers’ market. And the man has never taken diabetes medication—this is all on him, he made all those changes. He’s never taken diabetes medication.
AK: And he got his weight where it needed to be. And he is not—especially in L.A., I can say this—he is not in picture-perfect health, I promise you, but he has better health and he works all the time to keep it. He used to call me and now he’ll email me. And he’ll just say to me, like, “Okay, you know, I’m a little bit off the rails. I’m not doing what I’m supposed to. Can you remind me? Can I send you my food journal for a couple of weeks?” And he gets back on track.
And I think when we set the expectation for all of us that we can make better choices and that we know… I mean, we’re in this awesome place today: we know what better nutrition is and is not. And it just is about making those better not-perfect choices more often that will deliver that better nutrition, which is so much more fun than going on and off perfect diets and feeling like a perfect failure. I mean, just to be honest on that part.
So there are times where either the media or individuals will say things like, “Well you know what? Organic isn’t this,” or, “Can you believe it doesn’t even…?” And I’m like, so, setting the bar for perfect would just set us up for failure. I promise you organic is better than any other option. So let’s just right now make things super simple for ourselves and say let’s choose organic more often, especially for the things that you consume most frequently, because what goes in and on your body most often is going to have the greatest impact on your health. And I think if we keep honing in on “better,” it’s just going to—we’re just going to have better lives.
TM: You know, that’s such great common sense. And you know, I’ve always loved that saying, “Don’t sacrifice the good for the perfect.”
TM: And I think I see this here. And also, you know, we tend to beat ourselves up about things. And especially, “Oh, I shouldn’t be eating this kind of thing!” And you know, I’ve never thought that, really, most foods shouldn’t be taboo, and that if you say, “Oh gosh, I love this food but I’m not going to eat it anymore,” often you fail.
AK: Totally. I mean, quite honestly, if you’re beating yourself up about a food choice—first of all, I promise you there’s something better you can do with your time. I promise you! And second of all, it’s almost not accepting your own responsibility, because, I’ll just be honest, it’s not the food’s fault, right? So you know, I’ll turn around and say to… I have patients that have said to me, “Oh my gosh, I have to stay away from all sugar, because when I eat sugar, you know, I eat it maybe if I’m not happy or I just want it,” or, you know, that kind of a thing.
And I’ll say to them, “Well, how does sugar make you feel when you eat it?” You know, if you have the cupcake, or you have… They’re like, “Well, it makes me feel so good, you know, in the moment.” I’m like, “Okay, so you know what? Sometimes we just need to feel good in the moment.” Like that’s okay. So if it actually made you feel good in the moment, okay. Then let that “feeling good in the moment” at that moment, that’s when you want to think about, okay, what else non-food-related do I need to actually feel better, like ongoing? Because I can’t have sugar always be the answer to my problem.
But there is a reality that, you know, a piece of—like if it’s your chocolate, if it’s your wine, if it’s your…You know, whatever it is that you want to have, and especially if it’s a better quality choice, it should make you feel better! That is a big part of food and about the fact that most of us are really lucky and we get to choose. We get to make choices all the time about what we want to eat.
And so my feeling is, that is such a luxury and a gift. And, you know, I’m not like traveling miles worrying about my safety or anybody else’s, just to get fresh water. And I think it’s so important to remember, when we have all these choices, that if we just pick on the food for saying like, “Oh, I can’t believe I had that!” or “That food’s so bad!” It’s like it’s really not a very great outlook on ourselves or on, you know, what we can accomplish, I think, in our lives. Not to make it too global, but I do think it’s an important reminder, you know? I just, you’re not the victim of a food choice. let’s be clear—most of the time.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Ashley Koff, dietitian, on Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez. And I so like the way that you are trying to use just information, but in a commonsense way so that people… I mean, I love the idea of helping people figure out what they’re doing good and do more of that, and what they’re not doing so good, maybe do less of that. Just such a great commonsense approach.
I see that, you know, when it comes to health and changing your diet, you learn an awful lot when you’re young that sometimes won’t help you when you’re older. And so when you want to change behavior it can be overwhelming, especially if you’re getting so much information that you don’t even know what’s right and what’s not. You come up with this idea, and I just laughed out loud when I saw it: the Qualitarian diet. You know in the age of how many different diets, are people moving from one thing to another, I love this idea that you coined this Qualitarian diet. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
AK: Sure, yeah! And you know it’s in that whole mix of infobesity too. And so I was actually fly fishing in Montana and my guide… If you’ve ever been on any of these trips, you know, you’re lucky if you get water instead of a soda, and if you get some real food instead of chips and, you know, kinda whatever they’re giving you for lunch. And my guide probably—my brother’s a fly-fishing guy they know, they’re friends with him—so probably a bit influenced by knowing that, “Oh, my sister is a nutritionist, you know, treat her well.” But he literally unfolded a—you know, I felt like I was being punked on the river. He took out a ceramic bowl; he put organic lettuce and this beautiful salad. He told me his wife—and remember, this is 10 to 12 years ago—his wife had made me a gluten-free, organic cacao brownie. Like, I mean, just on and on, right? And so then he’s—and the whole salad is all done—and then he’s pulling out… He said, and he’s got this container, and he says, “So, I didn’t put this on your salad.” And he goes, he shows me, and he’s like, “But this is bison, and I would love for you to enjoy it. I was going to put it on your salad, but then I had a moment, I was like, maybe you were a vegan.”
And so he pulls out this bar, which will go nameless, out of his pocket, and he said, “So I brought this. But the thing is, I don’t really eat this ’cause, you know, it’s got processed soy, soy protein isolate, and we don’t really think it’s very good for us, and you know…” And he just starts to go on. I mean I’m literally like die—I’m in this total state of shock. And he must have looked at me and thought I was so offended by the bison. I was like, what he didn’t know was that the night before, I had had somebody who had cooked—I wasn’t a big meat eater, and I certainly hadn’t had exposure to game like this—and I had had somebody cook it but not cook it well, like they had overcooked it. And so I just was really like, “Oh, don’t make me eat this again.” Like, you know, not in the sense of that I had anything against it.
But he goes through this whole thing, and we get into this whole discussion about how you can’t just assume that a plant is always the better choice even though a plant-based diet is the healthiest diet for us across the board. But you can accessorize with quality animal, and you should. But it’s about the quality of it, right? And so we got into this whole conversation. At the end I said, “You know what? I’m so glad…” You know, I was like, “So I’m not a vegan, I’m not a pescatarian, I’m not a vegetarian. I’m a qualitarian.” Because at the end of the day, I just, you know, he sat back, and I was like, so qualitarian for me is the umbrella under which all other diets are measured. Because, and where we are today is we know that the quality of what you put in your body matters as much if not more than the nutrients, you know, than the specific nutrients. Because you’re going to get from nature what nature intended, and as a result, what your body recognizes better.
So I think that piece is so, I just, the qualitarian piece to be… Plus it allowed me, you know, conversations at dinner tables and at events, when people are like, “So what are you?” You know? And you’re like, well, I’m awesome, I’m, you know, I like to dance, like whatever. And then they’re like, “No, no, no. Like, so you’re a dietitian—like are you vegan, are you paleo?” You know, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m a qualitarian.” And it kind of just shut them all up. It was great. You know, it’s like,…
And then people’d be like, “Well, I’m a qualitarian too! Can I be one?” I remember that like, I got asked that, and I remember at one point Mark Hyman, you know, physician, called me and said, “So I’m on Dr. Oz tomorrow and I really want to talk about and use your word, the qualitarian thing. Can I use it if I say it came from you?” I was like, “Don’t say it came from me!” I’m like, well maybe, you know, like trademark me off to the side. I was like, but come on! It’s not about like, you know, I don’t need to have a trademark on a name. It’s really, for me, about, you know, the idea that we’re all aiming and aspiring to have that, you know, that better quality more often. So yes, it’s a key piece of better nutrition, quality is.
TM: You know I want to go back to the very beginning of our conversation today when you actually alluded to the fact that what an exciting time to be in the health and nutrition business.
TM: You said something about, this isn’t just from the plate to your mouth anymore; it’s much more complex. I immediately thought of Joan Gussow, who decades ago brought to Colombia University the idea that, “No, no, no. Your health starts with the earth.
TM: And certainly had to fight like crazy to get that accepted. And now you’re saying today, in the twenty-first century, this is an exciting thing. And I just wondered if you want to talk a little more about that.
AK: Totally! And I think as a country we’re finally also waking up to, you know, I feel like we went through this phase as like a young kid that just had to try it all out on our own and now we’re like back to our parents, like the European way of doing a lot of this. Or, you know, like our parents anywhere, you know, the longstanding cultures in Africa and Asia and other places that have just been doing it better for so much longer. And we needed to think that like we should hyper-process or we should have all the same seeds grow, you know, the same plants grown everywhere, that we could get rid of all animals, or, you know, all this other stuff. But, you know, our stubbornness is eroding because we’re in a couple of different places.
You know, if I am on the phone here and talking to someone, whether it’s a patient or an interview, and I tell people that organic is better for you, and then we, I also know that it represents only 4 percent of, from a land standpoint, and from a product availability even less across the country, depending on what we’re looking for. You know, organic dairy versus maybe organic lettuce, that kind of a thing. And the importance of getting that. So it’s unfair for me to tell people that the better-health thing you can do is choose organic and then, “Oh, by the way, it’s not available,” right? So we have this huge curve of needing to have more organic available.
And in that way, we started to understand, I think, that we have to be comfortable, as you said, with not letting perfect get in the way of good or get in the way of better. So even supporting transitional farming and all that stuff is so, so important. And think one of the key pieces in that is that we, in order to really look at a long-term plan of how we can have the things that we know to be enabling our better health—i.e. better nutrition and the foods and the beverages that support it—we have to take better care of our resources. It was really something that, you know, helped me to become, very much an environmental activist, if we want to use that expression, one of the most, the easiest ones for me to jump on.
If you’ve ever been to Alaska, every time I land in Alaska, and especially when I get out over towards Bristol Bay, I’m like, okay, so this is, like there is really perfect, you know? Like, let’s not mess this up! And when I started to understand what Pebble Mine was and how it could interfere with the entire potential for wild salmon, you know, I was like, here is a place where America, where the United States is doing so, is leading, and it’s doing so much right in the environmental and in the food space, I’m not letting anyone—especially European companies who just want, you know, to create big copper mines that are dangerous and not going to produce jobs long-term—I’m not going to let that happen. And people use to say, like, “Ashley, you know, how do you have time for this environmental activism as a dietitian?” And I’m like, “So how do I not?”
You know, this is my, to anyone who’s listening, if you’re a health coach out there I always put this challenge out. There are tons of dietitians, there are thousands of dietitian students. You guys should be joining me in Washington, D.C., and in your local, at your local government on an ongoing basis and making sure you that you tackle local environmental issues, because they are what will enable you to have an organic greens juice every day, which is what you’re posting on Instagram you’re having. You know, it’s like we can’t just say… You know, so I think that link is so important for people to understand.
And you know, a lot of times people will say, “Well, isn’t there a supplement for that?” or “Isn’t there a pill?” And I’m like, “Yeah, absolutely! But the better ones come from those same better resources. And if you want those long-term, if you want… You know, I’m obsessed with broccoli, it’s my favorite food; my dog even eats organic broccoli every day. And the main reason that we eat broccoli is because is broccoli has the highest concentration of glucoraphanin. Glucoraphanin goes in and engages, it turns to sulforaphane, which is critical to our Phase 2 detoxification.
But the key thing to understand is we’re all built with detoxification systems, and we need to make sure that we have the right nutrients so that they work right. So when people say like, “When should I go on a detox?” I’m like, “Every darn day, you should be detoxing.” But you can do that with broccoli. Not all broccoli has the same amount of glucoraphanin, so I actually take a supplement of broccoli whenever I travel, or if I’m not getting in enough broccoli at home or, you know, whatever the situation is. Or, if I’m more concerned about my exposure to environmental toxins, which tends to happens more when I travel. So, for example, when I went to China, I was sipping on glucoraphanin green tea every single day, because there’s more air pollution there, I think.
But you know, at the end of the day, if we don’t take care of our land, in order to create enough organic broccoli or even to sprout enough of the seeds, just to be able to have those seeds available, we need… That is so critical: we won’t be able to give our body’s detoxification systems what they need, which means we see higher rates of disease as a result of not detoxifying properly. So, it is so integrally [unclear—linked?].
You know, one of the interesting things that… Some of the people that you’ve mentioned are scientists, researchers, environmentalists, and for me it’s really a call to action to anyone who is a health-care practitioner. You have to be involved in the environmental space, because your best medicine is better nutrition, and you need to defend that and need to be a part of that conversation. And I think, you know, we’ve been leaving it quite a bit to farmers and scientists and researchers and, you know, “those environmentalists.” And I think that there’s a real role for people like myself who are on the front lines of the disease side of it, or on the preventative health side of it, where we need to be more advocates for the environment than we’ve been in the past—more vocal at least.
TM: Hear, hear! Excellent, well said. That connection between the earth and good food, it all starts in the earth. So, those of you who have been listening and are intrigued by seeing what more you can learn about yourself, your diet, very accessible database on AshleyKoffApproved.com website, “Better Nutrition Simplified” program. She’s evaluated over 60,000 products to date. And so there’s a lot of information there. And Ashley, it’s been just a joy to talk with you. Just a wonderful thing that you’re doing for our health and the health of the earth, and I really appreciate it.
AK: Thank you, and I appreciate all of your work. We’re all connected, and it’s so fun to be that way, so thank you.
TM: Yes, and what a great way to say goodbye to everyone: we’re all connected.
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