Dr. Akua Woolbright Ph.D: “It is ok to be selfish”

Rework Breakfast. Keep meals simple and forget about categorizing foods into breakfast versus dinner, and instead focus on eating real food. The goal is to flood your body with an abundance of whole, plant foods all day. One of the most important steps you can take is to eliminate traditional breakfast foods (i.e. veggie sausages, […]

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Rework Breakfast. Keep meals simple and forget about categorizing foods into breakfast versus dinner, and instead focus on eating real food. The goal is to flood your body with an abundance of whole, plant foods all day. One of the most important steps you can take is to eliminate traditional breakfast foods (i.e. veggie sausages, pancakes, butter, eggs, syrup, biscuits, juices). Instead, try opting for a hearty salad, green smoothie, variety of oatmeal combinations, avocado toast, or dinner leftovers.

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Akua Woolbright, Ph.D.

Dr. Akua Woolbright, Ph.D. is an authoritative expert on nutrition with a passion for helping individuals and communities achieve healthier lives. Her extensive work in underserved communities has empowered people of all ages to overcome harmful eating habits and to prevent and reverse disease through plant-based diets. As nutrition program director at Whole Cities Foundation, Dr. Woolbright conducts weekly healthy eating lectures, cooking demonstrations, and support groups for hundreds of students in cities across the U.S. Dr. Woolbright earned her Ph.D. in nutritional science from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

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

I grew up on a small farm in rural, Texas, nurtured by fresh fruits and vegetables from the land. My grandmother cooked full meals from scratch every day. If I wanted a snack, I went outside to our large garden and grabbed a ripe tomato right off the vine, wiped it on my pant leg and ate it. We were surrounded by bounty; there were berry vines and fruit and nut trees heavy with delicious pears, pecans, persimmons and plums. A typical afterschool snack might include corn on the cob or a baked sweet potato. We drank fresh well water straight from the tap. This was my introduction to plant-based living. My grandfather was a country Baptist pastor with a tireless commitment to service and supporting people’s positive life changes. I am inspired by his example as I work to help people transform their health — a path I see as my spiritual calling.

My family earned less than 20,000 dollars per year, but we were happy and I soaked up what rural living had to offer — going on adventures in the woods or riding my bike down the dirt roads with my cousins, picking blackberries so my grandmother could bake pies, catching fireflies, and spending countless hours at our little old country church. My grandparents, however, wanted me to have a life beyond the farm. I was encouraged by my family and community to work hard and continue my education. I received a full academic scholarship and left home to attend Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I received a bachelor’s degree in sociology with minors in cultural anthropology, African American studies and psychology. I went on to earn my master’s degree in sociology with an emphasis in urban problems and race, class and gender relations and a minor in public policy. My work in academia and public policy centered on women and child welfare, poverty issues and food policy. In my personal life, I was learning more about the vegan lifestyle I had adopted after undergrad and studying Reiki, chakras, herbal treatment, dietary supplements, meditation and various other holistic practices.

I eventually left the career I worked so hard to build to earn a doctoral degree in nutritional science. I landed my dream job at Whole Foods Market global headquarters in 2009 and transferred to Detroit in 2012, where I currently reside with my teenage son. The community engagement and nutrition outreach work I performed paved the way for me becoming the founding member and Nutrition Program Director of Whole Cities Foundation, the third foundation of Whole Foods Market, where I run the organization’s signature national nutrition program. I’ve dedicated my career to becoming a trusted resource and advocate for helping people take control of their personal health journeys. I promise my students that my program will be the go-to place for sound nutrition advice, then I work hard to earn and maintain their trust.

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?

When I first started my work in Detroit about 8 years ago, I was strongly cautioned by several public health and medical professionals that a plant-based message would not work here. I was instructed that the city was too impoverished, and that the people were lacking the personal and community resources needed to adopt major lifestyle changes. It was argued that since these people are often not compliant with their everyday pill regimen, regular doctors’ appointments and annual exams they cannot possibly make bold dietary changes. It is my position that while this may or may not be true, it is not up to us to decide. It is our job as health professionals to give everyone the same quality information they can use to make constructive changes and move towards optimal health. We must tell people the truth about certain foods’ ability to either harm or heal the body, and then strive to inspire them and support them in whichever changes they desire to make.

So, I started teaching about the benefits of a plant-based diet anywhere someone would have me. The interest quickly grew to the point I couldn’t accept all the invitations I was receiving, and we began inviting people to our center for weekly classes on a wide variety of health and wellness topics, including facts about protein, dairy and fats; ways to decode food labels; the biological mechanisms behind food cravings and how to turn them off; eating on a budget; constructing a healthy plate; making a lifestyle plan that sticks; cooking demonstrations; and more. At my center, we offer a combined approach that emphasizes information, inspiration and support. Our location holds 110 people, and we had to start offering some classes multiple times a week to accommodate everyone; over 800 attend our larger events; and thousands participate in our annual 28-day healthy eating challenges.

We know there are multiple barriers, but I believe one of the reasons we are not making enough progress in this area is because our recommendations don’t go far enough. I quickly learned people are not their circumstances. They are strong, resourceful, smart, determined, resistant, and resilient. The communities I serve have challenged opinions the medical community has about healthy eating and perceived barriers to fresh food access and are taking the steps they need to adopt a plant-based diet.

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?

When I first converted to a vegan diet 30 years ago, I thought the elimination of animal products was enough. Unfortunately, many others make the same mistake of abstaining from animal products while filling up on convenience and fast foods saturated with sodium, sugar, artificial sweeteners, oils and fats, excess calories, preservatives, and a list of other less than desirable/potentially harmful ingredients. This includes products like overly processed meat and cheese substitutes, frozen meals, French fries, sweets, sugary beverages, crackers, chips, and other fake food stuff.

Diets built around quick convenience foods often lack the nutrients needed to support optimal health and can lead to (and exacerbate) diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, weight gain, and other conditions. By focusing on consuming whole, real foods from the earth, we are more likely to obtain all the nutrients necessary for healthy bodily functions. We boost immunity and give our bodies even more self-healing power by strategically flooding our systems, organs and cells with more of what they need, and consuming less of what our bodies don’t need. With each bite we must ask ourselves if we are feeding and healing our systems, organs and cells or doing potential harm.

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?

Several people have been instrumental in my success, and because of their support, my life is what it is today. The most pivotal moment happened two days after I was born when my maternal grandparents decided to bring me home from the hospital and raise me as their own. Their children had all graduated from high school and moved out, but that did not stop them from starting over and pouring everything they had left into me. They loved me and provided a safe and structured environment, taught me to be resilient and bold, and encouraged me to work and study hard. They set a standard and championed me to fulfill it. When I look back at how things would’ve most likely turned out for me otherwise, I am forever and deeply grateful for the opportunity they gave me to have a much more positive outcome.

Our rural close-knit community had a hand in my upbringing as well. There were probably no more than 30 families in our neck of the woods and the two small towns that boarded us only had 600 and 4,000 residents. People looked out for one anyone and adults sometimes stepped in to mentor and discipline other people’s children. Their influence was invaluable, and many of our interactions were critical deciding moments in my personal development. The high expectations others had for me in high school followed me to college with professors who took an interest in me and challenged me to work harder.

I could go on and on listing the people who have helped and encouraged me over the years. The final person I want to mention is the man who introduced me to veganism in 1990. I will be forever grateful that he took the time to teach me about vegan-friendly restaurants, hippie health food and wellness stores, support groups, recipes, and books about the various environmental, ethical and health benefits of a vegan diet. That exposure not only laid the foundation for my lifestyle, but for my career.

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?

We teach people how to use a whole foods, plant-based diet to nourish, heal, rejuvenate, and repair the body — our systems, organs, cells, and DNA. In each of the cities where I teach, people are coming off medications and losing weight. They are learning that with a well-constructed diet, food has the power to prevent and reserve disease.

People are ready for us to go beyond a watered-down message of portion control, anything and everything in moderation, simply eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more water, get more sleep — — to more specific messages and detailed recommendations that can empower them to take full control of their health. They want to heal, but they need support. We are trying to fill that gap. We offer the good news that a life without meds is possible, even if sometimes that seems to be the norm. We provide the latest evidence-based, scientific information for disease prevention and control from both traditional and alternative modalities. We seek to be the go-to place for sound nutrition advice.

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.

  1. Choose whole foods from the earth, and mainly plants. Focus on adding a more colorful rainbow of plants into your diet as these foods are nutrient dense and support optimal health and wellness.
  2. Rework Breakfast. Keep meals simple and forget about categorizing foods into breakfast versus dinner, and instead focus on eating real food. The goal is to flood your body with an abundance of whole, plant foods all day. One of the most important steps you can take is to eliminate traditional breakfast foods (i.e. veggie sausages, pancakes, butter, eggs, syrup, biscuits, juices). Instead, try opting for a hearty salad, green smoothie, variety of oatmeal combinations, avocado toast, or dinner leftovers.
  3. Eat a cup of beans for breakfast and/or at dinner. Diabetics and anyone looking to stabilize their blood sugar should eat more beans, such as black beans, red kidney beans, adzuki beans, black lentils and pinto beans. These foods can help lower blood sugar and regulate it for the entire day.
  4. Move More. A healthy lifestyle goes beyond just eating the right foods. Movement can also be treatment for our bodies. Even walking just 30 minutes three to five days a week can make a difference.
  5. Practice Mindfulness. Meditation and quiet time help to lower stress and focus your thoughts. Use this time to clear your mind, set goals, affirm your positive traits and acknowledge areas of your life that need improvement. You can even try a walking meditation. During this time, also practice gratitude, give thanks and remember to smile.

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

My ultimate goal is to be a change agent within the industry. I am passionate about working within the public health and medical communities to encourage them to go beyond watered down messages of portion control and eating in moderation to make bolder recommendations that offer more robust information about foods that can heal and foods that can cause harm.

This movement is well underway, but my work is never done. Within the communities I teach, I have earned the trust of my students to be a go-to-place for sound information. I answer their nutrition and food-related questions and provide them with the ongoing support they need to make significant changes. We are transforming peoples’ lives, and I’m focused on bringing this movement to the national level. I want everyone to be able to come to my website and other platforms for quality programming, information, inspiration and support.

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

  1. Importance of food cravings and biological ways to turn them off. This is one of the things that changed my relationship with food. There is a science behind food cravings. People often think that willpower and/or dieting are enough to control their eating habits. When those efforts fail, we give up. This is the frustrating cycle many Americans find themselves in. By identifying those micro-nutrient dense foods that are deeply nourishing and satisfying, and filling up on them, we can have the power to turn these cravings off.
  2. The success of teaching more than portion control and moderation. We can be bolder in our messaging. People are ready to move beyond simplified dietary recommendations. They are desperate for solutions that will help them get well, lose weight, feel more energetic, and live longer, healthier lives. We know that when we get the food right these goals are possible, and we are providing our students with the concrete information and guidelines they need to change their eating habits.
  3. The importance of inspiration and support. From personal trainers to medical doctors, we are bombarded with messages that we need to make changes and take control of our health. However, sometimes information alone is not enough. We provide people with the inspiration and support they need to revamp their lifestyles. We stay with them and help guide them along their wellness journeys.
  4. The need for black academically trained nutrition experts who have backgrounds in public speaking, coaching and community involvement. I have found that the messenger can be as important as the message.Prevalent public health and nutrition recommendations can be so high-level and top-down that they are disconnected from how everyday people communicate, connect, emote, share information, feel inspired, and receive and adopt new ideas. The work must be intuitive, emotional, and real. I believe that our best approaches come not just from a head space, but also from a knowing, heart, or soul space. To get there it helps to have shared life experiences with the communities one serves. For instance, while others might have a lack of confidence in urban black communities to make deep changes, I know my people are resilient and resourceful, and I teach to that. It is important that all communities have the same access to quality nutrition information and support.
  5. It is ok to be selfish. It is ok to prioritize our own self-care. If we want to effectively help others, we must take care of our own mind and body. I tend to give everything I have to the community and my son. In doing this, my personal and professional goals can become off-balanced. I have to be intentional about setting aside enough time to cook, meditate and workout. By taking care of me first, I can bring my full self to my students and harness the extra energy I need to build a brand that is accessible to even more people.

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

There is a misconception that a vegan or vegetarian diet is inherently healthy. As someone trained in plant-based nutrition, I understand this is not necessarily the case. My recommendation is less about others adopting a strictly vegan or vegetarian diet than it is for them to adhere to the plant-based diet that best fits their lifestyle and personal preferences. An optimal diet consists of real foods from the earth, and mainly plants. It is not the exclusion of animals alone that gives a diet its nourishing and healing properties, but the inclusion of a much wider variety of plants. We must focus on adding the right foods (and super foods) to our diets if we hope to achieve optimal health, energy, vitality, and increased longevity.

Building all meals and snacks around whole, real, plant foods will supply our systems, organs and cells with the nourishment they need. Whole foods are unprocessed foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.

Make sure you are consuming all the nutrients (i.e. protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids) necessary for optimal bodily functions. Consider asking your doctor to test you each year for nutrient deficiencies. Before making any major lifestyle change, seek counseling from a reputable medical or nutrition professional.

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

I invite you to follow me on my LinkedIn page, where I share evidence-based facts on plant-based diets, my work with Whole Foods and Whole Cities Foundation, and other health and wellness topics. I am also working on a website and Facebook page, which will be launching very soon. Through my website and social channels, individuals across the world will learn more about my own health and wellness journey, evidence-based tips for establishing a healthy lifestyle, herbal treatment, meditation and mindfulness, among many other topics to educate you and help you take control of your own health. Through my website, students will be able to virtually join my healthy eating challenges from the comfort of their own homes.

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

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