An Interview with Best-Selling Nutritionist Ellie Krieger
The relationship between food and humans is ever-changing. This has never been clearer than in recent times. Despite the information explosion, making the right choices is increasingly difficult. One day a new study could be touting the benefits of a mystery ingredient and the next day another professional might talk about the same item’s harmfulness. It is easy to feel overwhelmed in an environment where every second of a dinner is fraught with danger!
As a registered dietitian and nutritionist as well as best-selling author, writer, and TV presenter, Ellie Krieger has been supporting people who deal with these challenges her entire career. Regardless of the platform, her priority remains the same. “I was always interested in food and passionate about it and drawn to it and flavor,” she says. “I’m a dietician who mainly works in the media and my mission is to help people find joy and pleasure from eating well.”
When Krieger was attending Cornell University, she needed to make money for school. So, she started to work as a fashion model with stints in Japan and Europe.
“I went to college to study nutrition. Actually, I was pre-med, but I majored in nutrition because that fulfills all of the requirements. But it was in a field of food, which I was really drawn to. I was modeling literally as a summer job initially, to pay for school. I had some friends in the field, so it was easy for me to access the fashion industry. After my freshman year of college, I was asked by a Japanese agency to work in Tokyo. So, I took a year off from school and worked in Japan, and then went to Europe and worked in Italy. It was an amazing thing… it was partially an adventure on its own. It enabled me to pay for school, and then ultimately my master’s degree in nutrition from Columbia University,” she says.
After graduating, she started to work in the nutritional field; first at her private practice, which helped her understand the questions people were asking. The direct feedback also taught her how to help individuals through the day-to-day issues that they face and for them to make good choices within the constraints and challenges that real life throws at them. The energy she got from working in the public space, however, made her expand her reach in different ways.
“I do have all of things (that) might seem disparate and seem like they’re coming from all different directions but there’s one overarching goal. And that is to help people, to reach people… and help them enjoy food in a healthy way. I minored in journalism for my master’s degree. Any form of media is fair game and within my mission: magazine writing, book writing, doing videos, doing Instagram, taking images, blogs, whatever,” she says. “I always follow this gut feeling of what gives me excitement, what jazzes me up. So (that is) how I take the next steps in my career.”
Working in the nutritional field means that Krieger has to keep up with the changes in food trends and society’s perspectives on food. And she feels that there are two sides to this.
On the one hand, “the basic stuff of what makes something good for you… or the basic concept of what is a healthy way of eating hasn’t really changed that much,” she says. “If you’re doing certain things like eating more whole fruits and vegetables; if you are eating whole grains, as opposed to refined grains; minimize added sugars; eating more healthy proteins, beans, fish, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils—those things haven’t changed in decades and decades, that basic stuff. So, I think that’s a really great sort of compass.”
On the other hand, our living environment, media and culture are changing rapidly.
“I’ll give you one example, when I wrote my first book, I would use Greek yogurt in recipes. But you couldn’t easily find Greek yogurt in a regular grocery store at that time… like maybe fifteen years ago. So, I would explain in my recipe, exactly the steps for thickening your own yogurt in your refrigerator at home. Now obviously, I don’t have to (do that) anymore. So, it’s kind of cool… these different ingredients like quinoa, Greek yogurt, and sriracha have come into our everyday vernacular. It’s really amazing, that aspect of it. Also, the media has changed things so much where we can access (different) recipes, voices, and food so much more easily,” she said.
There is, however, a downside to the proliferation of social media and content that is widely available to anyone with a tap of a finger. Regardless of platform, whomever goes furthest gets the most likes. The extreme raw-sugarless-vegan diets and the radical three-pound-cheese-and-bacon recipes reap the most attention. That societal polarization makes it hard to communicate calmly and logically.
“The food world is in some ways presented to us as… you have to be either vegan or you have to go on keto (and) that’s the only way. I want to just take that temperature down. And my goal is to help people realize that they don’t have to have fear, guilt, or total elimination of anything in their life to be a healthy eater,” she says. “Knowing how to thrive is different for each person. And that’s one of the beautiful things about the human body is that we can really thrive. If you look at cultures throughout the world, there’s not just one way of eating. We can thrive on lots of different diets. There’s a lot of wiggle room in that. So, we can enjoy that instead of being stressed out by it.”
It follows, then, that Krieger is not a big proponent of diet fads. “There’s diet in the more innocuous sense, like, I eat a healthy diet kind of thing. But then ‘diet’ is something that you’re going on—I’m going on a diet—that is frankly, I think, a trap,” she says. “It’s something that’s typically manufactured… We’re typically set up to believe that you need to go on this diet because it’s going to solve all your problems.”
She has read nearly every popular diet plan, and they all have certain threads in common. They are often overpriced, missing some important nutrients, or they go to some type of extreme. And they typically backfire and are set up so that if they do not work, the fault lies on the followers. Not to mention that users are often put on an emotional roller coaster, worrying about their weight daily.
“I think we need to take a more critical look—is this really working for me if I need to do it every single year and feel terrible about myself when I fail at it?” she says. “None of that is necessary. And some of it can be quite dangerous, especially for people who are dealing with potential eating-disordered-behavior. It can make us anxious; it can make us stressed about food. I know a lot of people I’ve worked with have been in this situation.”
Even in her early years as a teen, she would be stressed out looking at a menu where she worried about what she could and could not eat. Looking back, she says that “it shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to find pleasure, joy, comfort and balance all at the same time.”
As far as the daily dietary news and research, she suggests that we should look at them with a wider lens. Take a step back and realize that the basics stayed the same for the last 50 years. Eat more vegetables, whole grains but “don’t fill up on bread. My grandmother told me this stuff, right?” she says. “So, it doesn’t mean not to have bread, just don’t fill up on it.”
When new studies come out, we should take our time to digest them and look at the broader scientific research. The ideal approach is to read a set of related studies that came out around the same time. Humans tend to turn on a dime but that is not necessarily a smart thing to do when it comes to diet.
It also helps to realize that these popular science and diet books often take one or two studies out of context and make them into something different. “They take the seed of a truth that hasn’t been really developed yet and they develop it into a book. And the way they sell that book is by over-promising, by extrapolating and creating a plan around it. But it’s really not how science and diet work. So just keep that in mind that it’s sometimes more of a manipulation than anything else,” she says.
With the pandemic and other issues still lingering to impact us in 2021, there has been yet another shift in our culinary thinking. People have been cooking more and needing more solutions in that aspect of life. As challenging as things have been, the family meal has provided yet another outlet for Krieger to lean into.
“I’ve always valued my family dinner strongly, and tried to clear schedules with my daughter… to have dinner together as a family. And one of the things that COVID kind of gave us that’s a silver lining was we were all together. My daughter is now in college, but she was here during the quarantine period, and during the shutdown,” she says. “So, we had this time where we were together every night for dinner, whereas before, it was hard to get us together a few nights a week.”
Krieger was also able to contribute to people’s lives with her latest cookbook Whole in One: Complete, Healthy Meals in a Single Pot, Sheet Pan, Or Skillet. She gave the readers something that could reduce the stress out of meal-planning and save on their budgets while making healthy food in these difficult times. The book tries to utilize more whole foods and cooking with minimally processed ingredients—though she clarifies that she is “not a purist.”
One of the recipes that she particularly loves (also available on her website at EllieKrieger.com), is ginger soy salmon with broccolini, edamame, and shiitake mushrooms. They are roasted on a sheet pan but pack a lot of flavor; not to mention they have great textures and are easy to clean-up! It is “completely healthful and lusciously delicious and so it hits that sweet spot—delicious and healthy. Just about perfect,” she says.
“Sometimes there are so many choices that can be overwhelming. When (people are at) home, they’re trying to make something for dinner, ‘What should I make?’” she asks. One method she recommends is to broaden out to one new recipe a week. That way, a whole new repertoire can be slowly built up, and at some point, one can “see which ones stick and which ones you really love.”
Thinking about this issue’s theme of empowering women, Krieger sees a huge change now with many more female chefs and restaurant owners and she wholeheartedly champions the development. “I love to support that. I love to see women rising in that area. And I’m part of an international organization called Les Dames d’Escoffier, which is women in hospitality, food and hospitality. I meet so many inspiring people, and I do think the ground is fertile. I think change needs to happen, but I think there’s been a reckoning in terms of (the #MeToo campaign) and we’re moving in the right direction and it feels very exciting.”
As for her own exciting future, she is working on a few new projects. “I’ve been doing a lot on the Food Network kitchen app, which is really fun,” she says. “And I’m working on a children’s book, which I’m super excited about!” She can’t share too many details yet except that it is a picture-driven cookbook for kids.
Whatever surprises are hidden within the manuscript, we can be sure that the cookbook will be another feather in her already-decorated cap.
Written by Cary Wong