She’s out to clear up myths about healthy eating

Healthy eating is a personal issue for Jennifer Karlebach. It helped her get through the side effects of a thyroid disease in 2002, which inspired her to become a registered dietician. 

Karlebach, a lesbian Winston Salem, N.C., native who lives with her fiancé in Grant Park, works for the food service company Compass Group at senior care facility A.G. Rhodes Health & Rehab. 

She chatted with Q about misconceptions about healthy eating, how she deals with client excuses, and the cheat meal she just can’t avoid.

Why did you become a dietician? 

In 2002, I was diagnosed with a thyroid disease. The medications I was prescribed caused weight gain and other side effects like fatigue. I had no control over the medications, and was unhappy with how I looked and felt. So I started focusing on the things I could control, like diet and exercise. 

I began learning about the role nutrition plays in healing not only the body, but also our minds and spirit. I became fascinated with the science of it and knew that dietetics was what I wanted to do, not just for myself but also to help heal others. It’s true that how we nourish our bodies absolutely impacts our health and overall outlook on life. 

What’s the biggest misconception about dieticians?

That we are the “food police” and we only eat salads, raw foods and are watching or frowning on what others are eating. The fact is I love food and I love to eat. There are certain foods I tend to avoid or limit, but I have my moments — all of us do.

Also that we only focus on weight loss. When people hear what I do for a living, nine out of 10 times I’ll hear, “I really need to lose weight” or they’ll ask how they can lose weight. I do work on weight loss with certain patients, but really my main goal is to help others improve their health overall and create ways to encourage healthy lifestyle habits which focus on the role of food and different nutrients that fuel and heal our bodies.

What’s the most common excuse people give you for not eating well?

I think people are intimidated by healthy eating in a lot of cases because they just don’t know what eating well really looks like. I hear often that it’s bland and boring or some say they didn’t grow up on “those” types of foods, or they don’t want to feel hungry or deprived. 

Eating well is about balance, not elimination. I don’t think anyone should deprive themselves, because often they revert back to old habits. I try to educate people on what healthy eating actually looks like, whether it’s introducing them to new foods, different ways of preparing foods, portion sizes or just balancing healthy and not so healthy foods together. I encourage people to create their own way of healthy eating with the right information and do what works for them. 

What do you consider a success when working with a client?

I work with many different patients with a variety of health conditions, each requiring a custom nutrition plan. It’s always gratifying when I see a weight loss become a gain because of a supplement I offered, or seeing a client with diabetes lose weight and decrease their insulin.

There are more complicated cases where I see the direct impact of my work. For example, when I help someone get weaned off a tube feeding and back to an oral diet, or when I help a patient’s wounds heal up because of a protein powder I ordered. Regardless, to me my biggest success story is anytime I see an outcome change because of my nutrition interventions.

Do you have a cheat meal?

Italian food for sure! I grew up with and was raised by the best Italian cook out there, my Mom. Our monthly Sunday dinners mostly involve her baked ziti or lasagna, meatballs or sausage and peppers. I can’t deny it — it’s just too damn tasty. 

A version of this interview originally appeared in Q magazine. Read the full issue online here:

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