Take professional risks. As a classically trained conventional medical scientist, I struggled to find value in expanding my profession to effectively diving change. After taking on roles and educational opportunities outside of traditional clinical nutrition, my perspective and professional happiness soared.
Christina Meyer-Jax, MS, RDN, LDN, CLT, RYT, is a nationally recognized food and nutrition expert dedicated to enabling successful organizational and health outcomes. Currently, Christina is a Standard Process Nutrition Chair/Assistant Professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU), where she spearheads the College of Health and Wellness programs. Most recently, she helped develop NWHSU’s fully online Master of Health Science in Functional and Integrative Nutrition program. Christina believes good food matters and is passionate about educating the next generation of practitioners about health and nutrition.
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?
With an interest in human performance and medical and behavioral science, I became a registered dietitian and nutritionist and consider myself a wellness guru. Through a maximizer mindset, I passionately seek out ways to live my best life and support others in doing the same. Early on in my career, I noticed food is central to this “best life” concept. It became clear that growing, harvesting, cooking and eating could bring out the best in relationships, experiences and health. On the flip side, when nutritious food is not part of the equation, it can be determinantal to overall well-being.
Supporting individuals to thrive when given knowledge, access, and empowerment with food is life-changing. This is what motivates me every day in both my personal life as a mom and as a professional with the individuals I serve.
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 the early 2000s, there was a poor understanding of food’s influence on gut health. During that time, I was in New York on a public relations tour for a new probiotic yogurt. The team arrived at the hotel ready to prep for our presentation sharing the powerful news of good-for-you bacteria, that is when we found out the yogurt shipment was left on a loading dock in the Manhattan August sun. Let’s just say that is when good bacteria can go wrong.
At the time, the yogurt was not widely available, so we called every grocery store in the boroughs and New Jersey looking for new samples. Over the next several hours, the team collected as many yogurt containers as possible to share with the media the next day. Through our commitment to educate the public around functional foods and gut health, the team pulled off an extraordinary feat and delivered an exceptional presentation which ultimately became a pioneering moment of change in the health food marketplace.
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?
During the early stages of my career as a dietitian, I believed that enthusiasm for patient’s health would be the only component needed to support their journey on a positive, health-conscious path. But after a year working in a hospital and outpatient setting, I became frustrated with the lack of progress in my patients. After seeing a sign that said, “It’s not about you,” I woke up from this naïve mindset and dug into the behavioral science of patient’s diets and decision-making processes. The client’s success heavily relies on a practitioner’s ability to understand them and meeting them where they are. My favorite phase regarding behavior change is, “You can’t woo a squirrel by throwing a nut at them.” Behavioral change is about relationship building and understanding the 360-degree version of the individual that ultimately brings a person to healthy lifestyle changes.
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?
I am grateful for the patchwork of people I have had the opportunity to work with or personally influenced my life. Specifically, my stepfather guided me into a professional role that encouraged learning the foundations of management and finances. Following his advice of seeing goals through, I embedded the concept of not giving up for what I believe in and what I want. This is extremely true in reaching health goals; there are no shortcuts. Each intentional and healthy habit leads to optimized health, and each time someone delays those habits for immediate gratification, you get farther away from the ultimate goal.
Another major influence is the many students at Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) and beyond, who continuously bring new perspectives on food and health to the conversation. Several are interested in nutrition because they came from low food security, access and health literacy. They wanted to change the health paradigm not just for them but also for their larger community and needed the tools to achieve it.
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?
My professional motto is, “Good food matters, and good food matters for everyone.” The nation is at an unprecedented time when lifestyle related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer are rising. The good news is we have the power to change this trajectory through lifestyle factors. While this paradigm shift is a major feat, through professionals working together and educating the public, we can achieve a new reality.
Currently, I’m educating the next generation of healthcare professionals through NWHSU’s Master of Health Science in Functional and Integrative Nutrition, focusing on the competencies needed for practitioners to use food as medicine and understand the paradigm of finding the root cause of diseases. In addition, the program offers courses that prepare students in the behavioral sciences and health coaching to support lifelong changes.
In order to make a bigger impact, educators need to reach people at every step of life. This 100% online master’s program allows us to serve a large and diverse group of students and reach areas where health disparities are the greatest.
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.
- Drink more water. So much of the body’s metabolic processes rely on proper hydration. Staying away from highly caffeinated and caloric beverages helps weight management, and subbing in water will help you think better, move better and increase energy.
- Practice healthy behaviors. Pictures and words can have a significant impact on choices. Follow food, health and fitness accounts on social media and add several of those healthy behaviors into a daily routine. Stay connected and close with those who support your healthy lifestyle.
- Eat nutritious food. Items that come in a package rarely have the same nutritional value as fresh foods. Many processed foods have ingredients such as sugar, refined oils, preservatives and additives that can lead to inflammation.
- Get cooking. Nutritious eating often leads to learning some level of food preparation. This is not an innate skill but one that is cultivated. The best way to fuel your body is to learn how to do it yourself versus outsourcing it. So pick up some fresh veggies, a spatula and try new recipes.
- Practice good sleep hygiene. One of the biggest influences for proper health and mental health is a body and mind that is well rested. Getting at least eight hours of sleep every day is an important way to refuel the mind and body.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
As a dietitian, several clients do not remember a time when digestion did not hurt or impact their daily lives. Many have escaped wellness and simply accept feeling slow or blow it off to aging. That’s why I envision a movement where people feel good, live their best life and receive incentives to meet goals. Proper food and nutrition, along with other lifestyle behaviors, can help make this change. Because when individuals have the tools and incentives to get back on the path of wellness they would never want to go back.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Take professional risks. As a classically trained conventional medical scientist, I struggled to find value in expanding my profession to effectively diving change. After taking on roles and educational opportunities outside of traditional clinical nutrition, my perspective and professional happiness soared.
- Everyone can achieve more together. I was a very independent young professional and learned the hard way that it is not easy on your own. Now, my team motto is, “Rowing together we go farther, faster, and have more fun.”
- Science is evolving. What works now may not be what is effective down the road. For example, getting to the root cause of health issues is critical, but this concept might not have been well accepted twenty years ago.
- All choices have unintended consequences. As climate change increasingly affects daily lives, the world needs to evaluate the macro-level food choices and its effects downstream.
- Food is highly personal. What people choose to put in their bodies is based on many factors and biases. As a professional, it is my role to meet people where they are and design programs uniquely suited to their needs to provide the best possible outcomes while still honoring personal choice.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Currently, our broken food system has the biggest impact on both planetary and human health. The industrial model incentivizes cheap food ingredients but at a cost to our climate and biology. Research shows that the current agricultural and food production practices have negative consequences to the environment and in many cases, the workers. Studies also show that the products from this system are lower in nutrients and are contributing to an epidemic of chronic diseases. Experts must increase efforts toward an updated food system that provides nutritious food, better access and empower the change needed. Health ultimately relies on the food as medicine model for us and the planet.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights!