Forget Fads & Diets, Focus On Eating Real Food

As part of my recent piece on how meal delivery companies are growing their customer subscriptions, I had the chance to interview  Katie Kaswell, VP of Health + Wellness at Freshly. During our conversation, I realized that Katie and I shared many of the same food philosophies, one of the biggest beings to simply eat real food.

As part of our interview, Katie and I went a little deeper into the conversation about food and nutrition and how she’s addressing it at Freshly, but during our conversion, she also shared some great insights on nutrition, ingredients and the “diets” that many health-conscious people follow. Having worked in the health and wellness industry for over 20 years as a brand marketer, nutrition coach and also a chef, something Katie knows is food. Here’s what happened in that conversation:

Macala: Describe your role at Freshly? What do you do as the VP of Health and Wellness?

Katie: In my newly created role as Freshly’s VP of Health and Wellness, my vision is to create a center of excellence that defines and implements Freshly’s modern point of view on accessible, everyday wellbeing.  We’re building a dynamic team of hybrid thinkers: nutritionists, coaches, public health advocates, and sustainability stewards. 

We’re thinking about physical well-being, social well-being, and environmental well-being — a holistic view of our food system and wellness through the lens of nutrition and rooted in food.

Macala: What are the principles of nutrition and eating better that you’d give to anyone?

Katie: To start, my training has taught me to look at nutritional well-being through a more holistic frame. Simply put, there are two types of food:  primary food and secondary food. 

  1. Primary food is all the things that nourish us like our spirituality, career, exercise, community, love, family. 
  2. Secondary food is everything that we eat.

Often times, when something is off with our relationship with food, you’ll find that something is likely not in balance in that primary ring. I encourage people, including myself, to look beyond the center of the plate when it comes to their relationship with food. With nutrition specifically, my personal principles are not all that different from Freshly’s three guiding principles:

  1. Eat Less Sugar
  2. Eat Less Processed Foods
  3. Eat More Nutrients

If you learn nothing else, applying those three principles can point you in the right direction. Whenever someone is interested or ready to drill down a level deeper, I encourage a more thoughtful lense on types of sugars with the goal of consuming sweeteners that are found in nature and minimally processed.  Eating less processed foods means enjoying whole foods as close to their natural state. An easy way to assess that is a quick view of a nutrition label: Do you recognize the ingredients? Are there a lot of them? Can you pronounce them? The most fun I think people can have is around the third guiding principle — eat more nutrients — because there are countless ways to get better at this.

Whether it’s through a more stealth manor, like subbing cauliflower for a banana in a breakfast smoothie, or adding beets and carrots into a tomato sauce, or out in front like shitake “bacon” (yes, it’s just crispy shiitake mushrooms)  on top of your burger, or rutabaga french fries, plant-based ingredients have incredible applications. What I like about this approach is that its not telling someone to stop eating a burger or to toss out the ketchup, it’s instead encouraging exploration of nutrient-rich foods at every meal. In the end, we often see that the more good stuff you bring, the more you naturally drown out the bad.

Macala: When you worked as a nutrition coach, what were some of the principles you used to address food sensitivities and digestive disorders?

Katie: Food sensitivities and digestive disorders are a big topic and there can be lots of reasons for issues to surface: stress overload, an infection, an aggressive course of antibiotics, poor diet, genetics, long term medications and more. I generally suggest seeking medical guidance to rule out a food allergy (which can be life-threatening) or an underlying medical condition that requires a more specialized protocol or care. 

For most people though, they will likely determine that what they are dealing with is a food intolerance, something more nebulous and harder to diagnosis due to a wide array of symptoms. The NIH states that an estimated 20% of the world’s population might have a food intolerance and that overall, they are on the rise. The most common food intolerances are dairy, gluten, caffeine, salicylates (natural chemicals found in a wide array of healthy foods) amines, FODMAPS, sulfites, and fructose. Since there are so many places to look, I generally recommend starting with a food diary and monitoring for any patterns.  And if that’s not something you can be disciplined about, then I suggest starting by looking at what tends to be the broadest offenders, dairy and gluten. 

For most, that looks like an elimination diet for a period of time and then adding back in the gluten-containing ingredients and dairy one at a time to see if there’s any noticeable change.   For most of us, dairy and gluten in varying amounts can cause inflammation, an irregular gut, bloating and fatigue. I recommend limiting the intake of these even if these don’t seem to be the culprits. Working closely with a qualified practitioner you can also explore supplements, specifically probiotics, which can rebuild and protect the gut moving forward.

Macala: Cleansing and detox is getting pretty extreme these days, what are the best practices for doing it effectively?

Katie: Yes, there is quite a lot happening in this area and I would agree it can get pretty extreme; and if done incorrectly can cause more harm than good. There are many approaches and merit to go around, but I personally recommend looking for more everyday solutions that help you to regularly aid your body in elimination and keep it in balance.  

A diet rich in detox-supportive foods is the best place to start. Foods that help regularly eliminate toxins include leafy greens, broccoli, beets, turmeric, ginger, apples, chlorella and spirulina, lemon (the liver, which filters the blood and de-activates toxins, loves sour!) cilantro and blueberries. I’m also a big fan of doing one green day every week. All greens in any form all day (juices, salads, soups, roasted veggies).  And of course water, lots and lots of water and rest.

Macala: What have you see in your customers’ preferences for more specialized diets (paleo, Keto, plant-based)?

Katie: We know that some of our customers come to Freshly with an existing dietary preference, but many are simply curious about finding a sustainable way to eat healthier.  Beyond specialized diets, many people have taste or ingredient preferences, or even certain cuisines that they prefer over others. For example, they might avoid mushrooms or want to limit their consumption of red meat. Our goal is to be able to offer a range of meals to a variety of audiences, and then implement easy ways for them to find exactly what it is they’re looking for.

Macala: Why are there 85+ Ingredients banned from your meals at Freshly?

Katie: We are really proud of our list of banned ingredients. This list ties back to our guiding principle of less processed foods and an overarching belief that real foods are best. The banned list is largely comprised of food additives, chemical and artificial preservatives. These are not only made in a lab, but they tend to appear in heavily processed foods to help achieve a longer shelf life, enhanced flavor and color.  Many have been linked to health concerns, like triggering blood sugar irregularities. And while some evidence is inconclusive, to us, the benefits (longer shelf life, ability to use cheaper ingredients, enhanced flavor) don’t outweigh the potential risks.

Macala: Are there any interesting consumer eating habits or food preferences you’re starting to see in your current customer base that you’d like to share?  

Katie: As you might expect, we often see incremental upticks in certain types of popular diets at different times of the year. For example, around new years resolutions and the months leading up to the summer we see an increase in different approaches like Whole 30 or diets that promote weight loss. 

“Fads fade fast, so we try not to spend too much time chasing those down, but if the underlying principles ladder up to our food philosophy, then we’re all for participating in the wave.” 

A prime example is two years ago Keto was not on most people’s radar, but now we frequently have customers looking to apply the principle of a low-carb diet, something our menu and our food philosophy can both support. Since our menu changes regularly, you can easily see how we continue to experiment and enhance our meals with more plant-based components. 

We love the surprise and delight of healthy swaps in unexpected places, like kale and broccoli added to our pesto sauce or loaded cauliflower mash instead of classic mashed potatoes. While there are always people seeking vegan offerings, what we find more often is that most people are looking to strike a balance. And overall, we are seeing a wider interest in the adoption of our core food philosophy principles around less processed food, less sugar and more nutrients, which means more consumers coming to us every day for those solutions.   

Macala: What do you feel these habits and preferences are future indicators of?

Katie: There will always be a latest fad and we try not to be too distracted by those; we’re conscious of them without feeding into them too much. We’re seeing that people want to eat better without the hassle of doing so; Easy, convenient, sustainable eating solutions. That means, more innovative ways to bring comfort classics to life with healthier swaps and a commitment to a balanced menu with real food and culinary diversity. We feel confident that the trend toward healthier eating is not going anywhere, and neither is the desire to find healthier solutions that are both affordable and sustainable because they fit into someone’s lifestyle in a realistic way.

Macala: What do you think about the investment in Freshly most recently made by Nestle? 

Katie: For the Nestle investment, the benefit is just learning and leveraging from a company who’s already a leader in food. Nestle has been around for 150+ years and what they do from farming, to sourcing, and more is incredibly valuable learnings for us. For Nestle, the benefit of Freshly is learning how freshly online operates and the impact digital data can give you as a company from product, to supply chain, and more.

Macala: Now for a fun question, when you did the farmer’s market tours, what were those like? What did people learn from them?

Katie: Farmer’s market tours are a really great way for someone to explore the foods of their region and see up close whatever is in season. A great challenge is to ask someone to pull together a menu based entirely on the selection at their local market. The best vendors usually provide recipe suggestions or ways to prepare their ingredients.   

Beyond seasonal produce, my Brooklyn market almost always has pickled vegetables (a great sandwich topper or stand alone snack) local honey (which many believe helps with seasonal allergies) delicious whole grain breads and spreads, and if you’re really lucky, amazing authentic ethnic offerings prepared to order, like Kimchi pancakes.