Nicole Grant of Zero: “Learn how you respond to stress and the best ways you destress”

Learn how you respond to stress and the best ways you destress. We experience stress every day. In small doses it can be a good thing and help us get stronger, however, chronic stress can be a major detriment to our health. Not just the physical toll on our bodies, but also poor habits that […]

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Learn how you respond to stress and the best ways you destress. We experience stress every day. In small doses it can be a good thing and help us get stronger, however, chronic stress can be a major detriment to our health. Not just the physical toll on our bodies, but also poor habits that tend to emerge in response to those emotions. Stress eating happens all the time, but if you can learn to address your needs and destress in productive ways while avoiding food as a crutch, it can definitely lead you to a healthier being.

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Grant.

Nicole Grant is a Registered Dietician and Certified Nutrition Support Specialist who practices in the inpatient and the outpatient settings. She has years of experience in both the prevention and treatment of chronic disease. In the outpatient setting, Nicole works with patients one-on-one and applies evidence-based practices to help them achieve longevity and health goals unique to their individual lifestyles. In the last few years, she has also focused much of her time and research around the benefits of fasting and how this practice can be successfully implemented into most nutritious routines. She is also the nutritionist for Zero, the world’s most popular fasting app with 7M+ users and over 370,000 5-star reviews in the App Store. Zero helps people make long-term lifestyle changes that can improve their overall health and Nicole offers her expertise to users in the form of written content.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I grew up in a single-parent household after my dad passed away when I was six years old. My mom worked three jobs in addition to caring for my brother and me. Even with the abundance of stress, work, and juggling two kids, she still cooked all of our meals and made nutrition and health a priority in our household. So, fortunately, I was introduced to the importance of healthy lifestyle practices at an early age.

However, when it was time to choose a career path and a college to attend, business was my initial focus since I thought that was where I could make the most money. I saw the financial struggles my mom went through and wanted to avoid that at all costs. Fast forward 3 years, as a business undergrad, after an inspiring and eye-opening trip to Madrid for a semester and some inner reflection on my purpose in life, I decided to change my major and focus my studies on something I was truly passionate about. I came to the conclusion that money doesn’t mean everything, especially if you are unhappy while making it. I needed something I was passionate about and that I would be excited waking up each day practicing and learning more about. So, I changed to a BS in Foods and Nutrition and after that, completed my dietetic internship at UCSD Medical System.

I started out my career in a role that combined my interest in healing with foods and medical science and worked in the hospital setting for a few years. It was quite impactful working in the ICU, cardiovascular units, and the cancer ward, however, I eventually became more and more drawn to a career that helped prevent people from ending up in the hospital in the first place, and I knew nutrition was a key player in that field as well.

So, I spent the remainder of my career up to now working in an innovative, boutique private practice, conducting health coaching, consulting, and most recently, spreading knowledge around the intricate world of fasting through Zero’s platform. I have been collaborating with Zero, the world’s most popular fasting app, on expanding education and awareness around the considerable number of benefits fasting can provide.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

In my career, I have had the opportunity to work with many interesting people and connect with patients from all backgrounds across the world. However, one interaction that has stuck with me over the years was with a patient I worked with in the hospital . This man was in his mid-40s and experienced his first heart attack. I was asked to provide him with education and encourage the start of a heart-healthy diet. At first glance, I saw a healthy-looking guy, with his two children and wife. Without reading his chart prior to seeing him, I would not have expected that this man had just had a heart attack. Once I started speaking with him, I could tell he felt the same. I could hear the nervousness and seriousness in his voice. I knew that this was something he nor his family ever expected, and it was quite a shock to them all.

I brought a heart-healthy handout to the visit and started reviewing this with him. However, I could tell that he needed more. It seemed like he had heard these recommendations in the past, but for some reason he had trouble changing his nutrition habits. Days at the hospital can be quite busy and you usually have over 10 people to see in a day, however, I could see this family needed and wanted the help. So, I sat down and started learning about them as an individual family. They shared with me their lifestyle and diets they had tried in the past, but more importantly, the missing piece to the puzzle — his wife has struggled with an eating disorder for years and she was the main grocery shopper and the one who took on the responsibility for cooking meals. She was having a hard enough time dealing with her own challenges around food that she was unable to provide the family with the home-cooked meals that would have helped her husband and kids’ health. She was very brave in sharing this with me and I admired her desire to help, however, she just did not have the right tools to do so. I told the family I would work on putting some resources together for them and be back in an hour or so.

I rushed back to their room, hands full of website options for recipes, meal plans, prepared meal options, and meal kits, a referral for the wife to address her eating disorder upon her request, and fun ways to get the kids involved in mealtime to help take some of the burden off mom. I was pleasantly surprised when the resources were received with tears and a hug from the wife. The entire family showed their gratitude for the help, but also shared that they finally felt listened to. That extra five minutes I took to get to know them as individuals and provide catered recommendations meant more to them than I thought.

From this simple but impactful interaction, I learned the importance of communication, empathy, and treating people as unique humans, not just a number or patient X, Y, or Z. There is usually a lot more to someone’s story than we think and taking just a few extra minutes to get to know them, can have quite the impact on their overall wellbeing.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I made the mistake of assuming that helping people change their nutrition intake would be much easier than it actually is. At the beginning of my career, I would spend hours scouring the internet for the best recipes, meticulously put together menus that met all the patient’s nutritional needs, tallied grams of carbs, protein, and fat, and created extensive lists of “eat this” or “avoid that.” This approach was great for a handful of the people I worked with, but there were a surprising number of patients who did well for a few weeks or a few months but then fell right back into their old habits. I slowly began to learn that people generally know what they should and should not eat, the hard part is building the habits that support these changes.

I have now shifted the conversation from what to eat to exploring the context around why people eat and how they respond as individuals. I spend a lot of time with patients exploring their unique and individual responses to nutrition, as well as their environments, emotions, social aspects around food and a more holistic approach involving optimizing exercise, sleep and stress. I have also learned that the notion of when to eat can also be easier adapted than what to eat. Certain fasting practices can help with this.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There have been numerous people — mentors, colleagues, family, friends — that have helped me get where I am currently at. I could never have done this without the immense support from my husband Rich. We were blessed with a new baby during the pandemic and have both continued to work. He has done an amazing job stepping up as a dad, husband, and provider.

I am also very grateful for Dr. Peter Attia, a friend and colleague whose medical practice focuses on longevity. He took a chance on me back in 2014 when he was starting up his private practice. I was lucky enough to be the Dietitian on his team and work with some great colleagues and patients while there. He taught me how to turn most things I had learned about nutrition in undergrad upside down and showed me how to look at nutrition through the skeptical lens of evidence-based research.

Dr. Attia also introduced me to the team at Zero; I collaborate with them to build their educational offerings with users interested in learning more about fasting.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

I currently wear many different hats — clinical dietitian, health coach, writer, consultant, mom, wife. However, I think the common theme here is helping others and figuring out ways to improve as many lives as possible. Clinical work has given me the opportunity to make an impact in the acute setting for those who are critically ill, health coaching has allowed me to connect with people on an individual level, and my work at Zero has allowed and encouraged the sharing of knowledge around health, nutrition and fasting to millions of users.

Zero not only provides people with a sense of community, especially in times where that can be absent, but provides tools and resources for people around the world to improve their health and sense of wellbeing.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

Consider experimenting with fasting. It is not for everyone, but for many it can be a useful tool to experience some of the positive benefits — boosted energy, reduced inflammation, accelerated cellular repair, improved body composition, and mitigate risk for metabolic syndrome.That said, everyone who is interested in starting intermittent fasting should speak with their doctor beforehand — it’s not for everyone, particularly people who have Type 1 diabetes, are pregnant, or have experienced disordered eating.

Practice a mindful meal at least once per week. With so much going on in the world as well as our busy day-to-day lives, it is easy to consume food mindlessly or let other triggers such as emotions drive our food choices aside from true hunger. The practice of a mindful meal helps you tune in to what your body needs and how you respond to food. It helps you grow a sense of purpose and respect for how you fuel your body and ultimately lead to healthier choices.

Learn how you respond to stress and the best ways you destress. We experience stress every day. In small doses it can be a good thing and help us get stronger, however, chronic stress can be a major detriment to our health. Not just the physical toll on our bodies, but also poor habits that tend to emerge in response to those emotions. Stress eating happens all the time, but if you can learn to address your needs and destress in productive ways while avoiding food as a crutch, it can definitely lead you to a healthier being.

Learn how you respond to habit-building as an individual. I have been very interested in reading as much as I can on a variety of theories approaching behavior change. One book I read years ago that I still refer back to is Better than Before by Gretchin Rubin. I love how she discusses the uniqueness around habit building and how various personality traits and tendencies we have determine how we respond to motivation and change.

Tech can be your friend (wearables, apps, etc.). I love learning as much about myself as possible. Along with my competitive nature and love of anything you can gamify, wearables and apps have become a motivating piece to my healthy habits. Continuous glucose monitors, ketone readers, sleep rings, and apps such as Zero have been part of my journey of learning about my individual response to nutrition and lifestyle choices I make.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would love to bring nutrition education, cooking classes, and basic lifestyle courses back to schools! Teach meditation, the importance of good sleep, how to exercise, where food comes from, and more at a young age to help children learn how to integrate these practices into their daily routines. We would not only see the risk of chronic disease and medical conditions decrease (and the benefits continue through adulthood), but I am sure attention, focus, and productivity in the classroom would improve as well.

When schools take a budget cut, PE, home economics and those types of classes are the first to go. Unfortunately, they are just not seen as a priority. Even in medical school, most programs provide only one class on nutrition for the entire four years someone is studying medicine. We need to bring back the importance and awareness around education and wellness.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

You will likely never feel like an expert in your field — and that is okay. No matter how much time you spend diving into a topic around nutrition and health, science is an ever-changing field. We are constantly learning more, and nutrition recommendations continuously evolve, sometimes contradicting previous recommendations we have given based on outdated science. Although that part can be challenging, constant learning and growth is what also keeps me interested, motivated, and engaged in this field.

People are unique, so their nutrition should be too. One diet does not fit all! Patients should be seen as individuals with varying genetics, family history, lifestyles, etc. So, health care recommendations should be tailored to each unique human as well.

Nutrition should take a holistic approach. Positive nutrition changes may not mean much if stress is spiraling out of control. Improvements in exercise can be overshadowed by binge eating afterward. When thinking about improving wellbeing, all aspects of health should be considered — nutrition, exercise, stress, hormones, supplements, sleep, etc. and how they work synergistically.

If it isn’t tough, you aren’t growing. There have been many times in my career where I have gone through rapid change, times where I have been thrown into a position with uncharted territory, and instances where I felt my knowledge was lacking. For someone where things tend to come easy to them, being pushed out of my comfort zone is no easy mental task. However, I would never be where I am today without those obstacles and push towards bettering myself.

Always work on building your tribe. This can be applied to work and personal life, however, in my career, I have had so many opportunities come around due to the people I have built strong relationships with.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

These topics all have a place in my heart; however, sustainability and mental health have been top of mind lately. I believe mental health is a huge piece to the wellness puzzle and I wish it was made more of a priority in our society. Sustainability is another one that is underappreciated, but so important to our health. The quality of the nutrition from the food we consume can be greatly improved by sustainable farming practices and we would not have many of these current issues of depleted soil, food scarcity, and negative impacts to the environment if sustainability was more of a priority.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

I’m currently collaborating with Zero on expanding education and knowledge around fasting. I recommend following Zero on Instagram, @zerofasting and on Facebook.

You can find me on LinkedIn and I also have a very laid-back Instagram account, @dietitianapproved, where I post some of my favorite recipes. I love cooking and this is an easy way to share some of my favorites!

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