Q&A with Registered Dietitian and Culinary Nutritionist, Jackie Topol

We're thrilled to have had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Jackie Topol, MS, RD, CSO, CDN.  Jackie is a registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist and she works in Integrative Health and Wellbeing. We love Jackie's approach to looking at the whole person and dig her commitment to the integrative health model. We know you'll love this Q&A and be sure to check out her upcoming culinary nutrition class schedule

1. Could you tell us what you do for a living and how you got into this field?
I’m a registered dietitian at Integrative Health and Wellbeing which is part of NY-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell. I really love what I do because I help people reach their health and wellness goals. My passion for the field of nutrition came from my firsthand understanding of the healing power of food. In my teens and 20s, I dealt with acne, extra weight, and digestive issues, which all improved after making significant changes to my diet.

2. Can you explain what integrative medicine is and what your role is as a dietitian in an integrative practice?
Integrative medicine looks at the whole person and all aspects of their life and strives to understand the root cause of a patient’s ailments instead of just treating symptoms. A combination of conventional and evidenced-based complementary approaches are used to individualize care and achieve the best outcomes for the patient.   
I am fortunate to work with an incredible team of health professionals. We frequently refer patients to one another because we know the value that each one of us brings to the table. We have two integrative physicians, a mind-body nurse (who does reiki, guided meditation, aromatherapy, and yoga), a massage therapist (who also does hypnosis and pilates instruction), and an acupuncturist. (You can learn more about our practice through this video and our bios.) As the dietitian at Integrative Health and Wellbeing, I see patients for nutrition counseling who may be referred by my colleagues in the practice, however, patients can also make an appointment to see me without a referral. I see a wide range of patients who have digestive issues, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, diabetes, skin issues, migraines, autoimmune conditions or difficulty controlling their weight. 

3. Why did you decide to pursue culinary nutrition in addition to being a registered dietitian?
Actually, my training in culinary nutrition really came before my clinical training.  I have always had a love of cooking from a very young age and after my experience of healing myself with food, I really began to merge my two passions: cooking and nutrition. Though I didn’t go to culinary school, I assisted countless cooking classes at the JCC in Manhattan while I was in the process of getting my Masters in Clinical Nutrition at NYU.  The hands-on training that I received was priceless. With more experience, I began to teach my own cooking classes at the JCC that were health-focused and still teach monthly cooking classes there (you can find my class offerings on my website). I find teaching nutrition through cooking immensely satisfying.  It is so effective to show someone what nourishing food looks and tastes like, instead of just telling them.

4. What are some recent culinary trends that you have seen that are also positive for health?
I have seen more people move towards a plant-based diet, which I am really thrilled about. Vegetables are becoming the star of the plate and we see that reflected in restaurant menus, culinary magazines, and food products. There is a plethora of research that has shown that moving towards a more plant-based diet can greatly reduce our risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

5. What food(s) have you been cooking a lot of this fall?
I’m a member of a CSA so I base my cooking on what we receive from the farm.  Joining a CSA is a great way of eating locally and in season! Now that it’s getting chilly, I’ve been making warming soups. Last week I made a cauliflower-leek soup and tonight I plan on making a carrot ginger soup (both recipes are on my website).

6. With the holidays approaching, how you do you stay healthy and feeling your best during the holiday season?
Where do I begin! The holiday season is tough. There are so many temptations with foods and beverages at social gatherings. What I do, and what I tell my patients to do, is to
plan ahead. With Thanksgiving, for example, I’ll make sure to have a well-balanced breakfast and light lunch. If I know I’m going to a party where there may be limited healthy options, I offer to bring a dish or two. I also do a mental check-in before I start to reach for any food and rate my hunger on a scale of 1-10.  My patients find this tip super helpful too since we so often eat simply because the food is in front of us. I also make sure to drink plenty of water (which helps keep my appetite in check) and I steer clear of calorie-bomb beverages like egg nog. 

7. November is National Diabetes Month – when working with patients who have diabetes or pre-diabetes, what are your top tips for managing or preventing diabetes?

Start the day with a balanced breakfast that contains a complex carbohydrate (like oatmeal or whole wheat bread), some protein (like nut butter or an egg), and maybe a piece of fruit as well. Lunch and dinner should be primarily made up of non-starchy vegetables (like salad, sautéed zucchini, or roasted broccoli), with a small portion of starch (preferably whole grains, beans/lentils, or a starchy vegetable like sweet potato) and a moderate sized portion of lean protein (like chicken, turkey, or fish). Snacks can fit in to the diet too, but make sure they contain fiber, don’t have much (if any) sugar, and are about 200 calories.  Everyone’s nutritional needs are a little different though, so working with a dietitian can really help tailor a diet plan that will be sustainable for you.

8. What's the biggest nutrition misconception that you encounter through your work?
With the low-carb/Paleo trend, I have seen people become very anti-carb.  Carbohydrates are absolutely healthy, but it’s the type that matters.  The refined carbohydrates (white rice, regular pasta, white bread, pastries, candy, soda, etc) are what we need to avoid in our diet.  Complex carbohydrates (quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat bread, fruit, beans, lentils, etc) can absolutely be part of a healthy diet, but portion size does still matter.

 9. How would you describe your nutrition philosophy in a word or a phrase?I believe that food is medicine.  This is the guiding principle behind the way I practice and teach nutrition to my patients. I help patients understand the value of the different foods they are putting in their bodies and encourage them to ask themselves “what is this food doing for me”?