Those struggling with obesity sitting in a doctor’s waiting room know before they reach the exam room that the first thing they will hear is that they need to eat better and lose weight. Though they recognize the need to do so, they often leave the office with little information about how to follow through. Melissa Gauna, a local nutritionist in the Rio Grande Valley, suspects many people struggle to eat “better” because they don’t know what that looks like in practice. As a holistic nutritionist and nutritional therapist, Gauna aims to remove some of the barriers to health, starting with a clear starting point.
“My goal is to partner with doctors because many times they do not have the time to explain nutrition to their patients, and many don’t have a strong nutrition background from which to do so,” she says. “Many only took a class on nutrition in medical school, so it’s a win-win situation for both parties for me to come in and help their patients understand why and how to make long-term dietary and lifestyle changes.”
Gauna observes the modern-day obsession with weight-loss, and stresses that obesity itself is not a condition. “It’s a symptom of something else being off in the body,” she says. In trying to understand and address obesity, we first have to understand some of the underlying reasons why people are unable to lose the extra weight. That may be unstable blood sugar, compromised digestion, hormonal imbalances, stress, dehydration and vitamin/mineral deficiencies among others. “The goal of any weight-loss program should be to get the body healthy. You have to build health in order to start losing extra weight,” Guana says. “That starts with eating real food, getting plenty of rest, sunlight, and water, as well as managing stress levels. We need to get back to basics. Once you start giving your body what it needs, the magic happens and your body starts to function as it was intended.”
Not just meal plans & recipes.
Gauna’s job goes beyond meal planning and sharing recipes. She first educates her clients about nutrient-dense foods, which contain vital nutrients needed by each cell of the body (compared to processed food that has lots of calories but no real nutrition). She explains that there’s a trend towards personalized nutrition that acknowledges and respects each one’s bio-individuality. “Cookie cutter meal plans can give you a good place to start, but you eventually need someone to help hone in on what’s right for your body, particularly if you are experiencing symptoms of dysfunction,” she says.
For example, someone who has high blood sugar needs to understand the glycemic index of carbohydrates to determine which foods will help stabilize their blood glucose. Even those with cardiovascular issues need to know which foods contain anti-inflammatory properties, which support heart health.“Your body knows exactly what to do in order to heal; you just need to feed your body what it needs,” Guana explains. “We want to get down to the root of the issue, so hopefully together with your doctor disease can be delayed or even reversed.”
Health starts in the gut.
Much of Gauna’s approach is directed towards creating a foundation of optimal health. Among those foundations addressed is gut health where the breakdown, absorption and assimilation of nutrients takes place. You may have heard that you are what you eat, but it’s actually more like, “You are what you can digest and assimilate,” because simply eating good foods does not guarantee absorption of the nutrients. So if you are someone who suffers from heartburn, bloating and gas, chances are your ability to digest foods and absorb nutrients is compromised. Gauna works with clients to look at how, what, and when they eat impacts their ability to break down foods.
Likewise, stabilizing blood sugar is another important foundation of optimal health. A group class she teaches is related to sugar. Statistics reveal we are consuming more sugar than ever. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes anywhere between 150-170 pounds of refined sugar in one year! Less than 100 years ago, the average intake of sugar was around 4 pounds per person per year. According to Gauna, we cannot consume this much sugar and not expect to have health consequences. “It is absolutely critical we start educating people about the effects of a high sugar diet,” she says. “Sugar is high inflammatory which can also play a role in heart disease.” By teaching a program like the RESTART Program, Gauna guides clients through a 21-day sugar elimination period in order to reduce consumption of processed foods, increase consumption of whole foods, reduce sugar and carb cravings, and more importantly, teach which foods help provide sustained energy, satiety and stable blood sugar.
While she is happy to see more people are taking an active interest in their diets, Gauna says her biggest frustration is knowing that there’s so much outdated information out there that is not only ineffective, but unhealthy. “People are still on the low-fat craze. We did that for a long time and we’re sicker than ever,” she says. “You need fats!”
Her belief is that nutrition can help heal the body, but we’re so disconnected from what real food actually is. The “nutrition” stores we see full of pre-packaged containers of protein powders and bars are misleading. “This is not real nutrition,” she says. “The synthetic stuff can only get you so far. Eventually you have to get back in the kitchen and cook your own food.” She makes the point that the longer you continue to ignore some of these things, it will be much more difficult down the road to reverse disease. “Luckily,” she says, “it’s never too late to make changes.”