Ashley Koff, RD believes better nutrition should be simple – but so often isn’t. The internationally renowned Registered Dietitian has dedicated her career to helping people achieve optimal health through better nutrition choices. For Ashley, better nutrition means quality. A respected speaker, author, and nutrition consultant, she translates nutrition and health concepts into practical tools people can use every day to eat their way to better health. Fresh, organic food is one of the pillars of her Qualitarian approach to eating. She’s all about empowering people towards wellness, and spoke to us about what it will take for us all to be healthier.
What’s your earliest memory of food?
My earliest memories are polar opposites – I was born in Michigan and we used to go to farms and get fresh produce, then we relocated to Columbus, OH, which was the test ground for so many fast food joints.
You’re recognized as one of the top dietitians in the US, and an authority in organic. How did you become a champion for organic?
Better nutrition is simple – but it sure didn’t feel that way to me growing up, then as a vegan in the 90s, and later I realized it didn’t feel that way for my patients. I came to understand that it means giving the body what it recognizes most easily and as such uses most efficiently. I wanted to understand what that meant for myself and for my patients, and so I began to look at how food was being grown globally.
I literally have “gone to the source” of most of the foods we eat, or should eat today. As I talk to the farmers they explain how and why they are growing with as few chemicals as possible and what they do to nourish the soil – and how that translates into the food that they grow. It made sense. Then I went to my ‘learning garden’, the Rodale Institute, and looked at research that showed differences in soil nutrient content between organic and chemically farmed, as well as held those soils in my own hands. The proof was in the touch, or so they say.
When I see what’s missing from non-organic soil, my dietitian brain connected that to what’s missing from our diets and implicated in the major diseases and health complaints we have today. That connected several dots. When I looked at what chemicals are allowed here in the US but not used elsewhere in the world, as well as what those chemicals can do to the human body and the earth – well that sealed the deal for me.
As a dietitian, you have a unique insight into people’s food choices. What’s the awareness of organic like?
It depends a lot on where you live and how you live today. Interestingly, thanks to great programs reaching out to lower income communities – folks have exposure to organic whole produce despite the fact that they may not have exposure to organic packaged foods. It’s harder with meats and dairy, but we are seeing progress there too – especially with the awareness of antibiotic overuse. In my travels, I see awareness of the organic logo growing, but still a lot of confusion as it relates to other logos as well as to marketing terms – that’s probably the area I get most frustrated with – we aren’t helping consumers when we let companies use marketing terms (like ‘natural’ ) that imply health status on a package; even product names can be confusing. I was an ad exec before I was a dietitian, so I know this is a big win for companies, but I am helping lead the fight against it now as it’s not fair to confuse consumers.
What I see and hear most as a dietitian is how confused and frustrated people are with nutrition. I look to organic as the way to help people achieve Better Nutrition, Simplified. It really makes it so simple – certified organic is the way food should just be made; its not perfect but neither is any diet, or health for that matter so it [organic] should be the standard.
How does organic fit into your Qualitarian approach?
My nutrition approach has four pillars. Quality is one that I think needs a lot more attention than it has historically received. Organic is better quality. That doesn’t mean you can’t create organic foods that are highly processed, but it does mean that when you start with organic versus something made with chemicals – I call these “chemistry lab project” ingredients – you are already a Quality step ahead.
What are the biggest health benefits to choosing organic?
You get what the body recognizes, and many times you get more than that. As well, you aren’t getting things that can irritate, overwhelm, or confuse the body. That’s just healthier.
I have a highly respected oncologist friend who said to me “Everyone doesn’t need to eat organic, but when I see a patient who has cancer the first thing I say to them is that they should switch all their food to organic”. I countered with “Perhaps we shouldn’t wait until we have cancer?”. I got a laugh and a “Touché”.
What have you found to be the most effective way to help people change their approach to food?
To not try to change it or them. I use education – to help them first understand how the body works, then how food is made, and then discuss their personal health goals. When I do it in this order, they connect the dots and feel empowered to make their own choices – healthier choices come from an informed position that feels doable. I also focus on what else they are taking in (supplements) or putting on themselves most frequently – that’s going to get the biggest health impact. And humor helps! We can’t take this too seriously even though our health is serious. If I stress them out about it that’s just adding to their health problems.
You’re a long time organic advocate, and you’ve appeared on a lot of media broadcasts. What kind of reception does organic get? Has that changed over the years?
Ha! Change is afoot – a huge BIG foot! Yeah, I used to be “that dietitian that thinks we should eat organic” and was told l couldn’t mention organic in my recommendations; now the hosts are talking freely about why they choose organic, I have even been interrupted by them saying “and we need to choose organic for that right?”. It’s awesome. The big bummer is that we still cut to commercials for chemistry lab projects – foods, supplements etc – but content-wise there has been a big shift. It’s also been great to see organic companies grow so they can compete as advertisers or with promotions. Now if I could just get my favourite athletes and musicians to stop making and promoting chemistry lab projects, I would be so happy. I’ve had to break up with a few for inconsistency of talk and walk. I even started the #HealthHallOfShame to out products, brands, organizations, and yes, even celebs who are contributing to the problem not the solution. We keep it fun and I always love to highlight when someone comes out of the HHOS; it just doesn’t happen as often as I’d like.
We’re struggling with obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and all these other preventable illnesses. That’s a lot of adversity to face every day as a dietitian. Where do you find hope?
I keep my glass half full of water with organic lemon – ok, I drink other stuff too – but really I focus first on my own health so that I can connect with people from a place of hopefulness and happiness to enable empowerment. That said, I also find hope when I engage patients, politicians, or the media on the tough questions – give the tough love – and they let me know they are considering my words or point of view. Hopelessness is right up there with the diseases we are battling today.
Can you share any advice for moms who want to make healthy choices for their little ones?
I am not a mom – well, I do have the most amazing 8-year-old chocolate labradoodle (Rerun) who I probably treat like a child – but I am so proud of and have so much empathy for all the mothers out there, whatever their definition of mother is. When you care for another it can be hard to care equally for yourself – that’s where I focus. I want to help you take care of yourself so that you can be the best for you and for them. That’s what it takes for us all to get healthier.
What’s the one myth about organics you’d like to dispel?
To me there are no myths about organic – there are only marketing oversteps or the attacks of those that need to justify a reason their chemistry lab projects. Look, if you are proud of growing GMOs or you love making chemistry lab projects and feed it to your family and eat it yourself and don’t have any health issues then brag about that – don’t attack organic as the problem. Mother Nature will win every time. Really, there is nothing that someone can say about organic that is bad.
What’s your vision for the future of food?
I spent the first decade of my career convincing people that their food played a key role in their health – good and bad. I think we have that message. But we aren’t any healthier. That’s because better nutrition has become too complicated – or on the flip side, oversimplified – and it’s confusing us into poor health or leaving us lacking the inertia to improve our nutrition for better personal health. So for me, the future of food looks simpler, it looks better, it looks healthier. As I said, I am hopeful.
We focus on feeding an expanding world and too often I hear arguments made for chemistry lab project ingredients in the name of “feeding nine billion” in the future. The reality is we can’t afford to feed the current population as poorly as we currently are (and we have the diseases and healthcare bills to prove that) so the plan can’t be to do exponentially more of that. The future of food needs to line up with the future of better health and both of them lie in better nutrition, simplified.
We love the way Ashley Koff, RD brings healthy, organic food to her patients and to people everywhere. What do you think of her approach? Share in the comments and be sure to check out our interview series with organic visionaries!