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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: May 2024

How Nutrition Can Help You Be a Better Lawyer

Stanley Peter Jaskiewicz


  • A healthy diet and workout routine can improve sleep and energy levels throughout the day.
  • By having a healthy diet, you can improve your work, become more productive, and spend more time doing what you enjoy, both at work and at home.
How Nutrition Can Help You Be a Better Lawyer

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Whenever I get hungry between meals, I remember Stephen Stills’ classic ode to appreciating the relationship you have rather than mourning the one you wished you did (and may never have).

This may seem like an odd pairing, but it makes perfect sense from my perspective – once you realize I am talking about my diet, not a person.

I learned a lasting lesson in my cardiac rehab after open heart surgery. My diet was critical to prevent a return of the massive artery blockages that were bypassed in my surgery.

As I explained in articles at the time, my “healthy” diet included many foods that contributed directly to my problem - particularly the salt-laden, boxed breakfast cereal and canned soup I frequently ate.

After completing all the exercise and counseling programs our health insurance would fund, I resolved to continue with both my exercise and diet programs on my own.

I am proud to say that I have succeeded spectacularly in that lifestyle change (in my unbiased opinion) - with the support of my wife, who makes the labor-intensive meals my cardiac diet requires.

I know that supporting my diet has been a frustration for her. Planning and shopping for heart-healthy meals are much harder for her. 

Eating with relatives takes even more effort, especially with those who may not understand my complex medical needs.

(I also must balance food allergies and other family medical history.)

In hindsight, my willingness to make these changes is not surprising to me.

Who wouldn’t be motivated to follow a doctor’s orders just after multiple bypasses and open-heart surgery, even if it meant giving up favorite foods and beverages?

But my change began almost five years ago.

Since my workout regime grew from what I had learned in rehab about making lasting behavior changes, let me explain what has helped keep me on my new path – and avoid backsliding into the comfort of what I had always consumed. 

I have previously described in VOE how I kept up my rehab exercise program. 

Today, in contrast, I want to describe my mental approach - the “inner game” of sticking with my diet and avoiding the temptations of “less healthy” food that is much more convenient to consume. 

“The Inner Game of Tennis” was my mental training manual as a high school varsity athlete.  Although my best game on the court had been long gone by the time I finished college, that book’s mental approach has stuck with me over the intervening years – enhanced by the mental health approaches I have learned over time. 

First and foremost, I have applied the skills of mindfulness and gratitude to eating.

As a busy attorney trying to maximize billing, meals had always been just pit stops in my day – necessary unbillable interruptions that I kept as short as possible, usually eaten in front of a computer screen.

Today, in contrast, I look forward to each meal I eat. 

I relish each bite, from blueberries and freshly made oatmeal each morning to a spinach, tomato, and cucumber salad, topped with a homemade low-salt dressing of olive oil and vinegar every night.

I take the time to savor each course. With my wife’s help, we plan each item carefully, to minimize my intake of sodium and sugar, as well as to avoid foods to which I have an intolerance.

As a “bonus,” I have also found that when I eat better, I sleep better and longer and have more energy each day – both challenges I have faced since college. 

I also appreciated the insights we learned from the nutritionist we found through our health plan. 

Not only did she provide us with several days’ sample meal plans, but she also taught us how to think about meal planning for healthier eating. 

We quickly found safer alternatives to unhealthy choices:

  • Salad dressing made at home with high-quality olive oil and red wine vinegar.
  • Fresh berries, raisins, and nuts add flavor to homemade oatmeal (rather than the “instant” packets we often ate).

Through her, I also learned balancing skills.

For example, I know that I can’t totally avoid salt and sugar (as I do with dairy products) in today's economy.

If you don't believe me, just look at the sodium content on the nutrition label on everything in your pantry and refrigerator.

But I can be very conscious about how much salt I consume. 

As a result, I choose to get my salt in foods I enjoy, such as the occasional steak.

I restrict even small sources of salt. 

For example, I have almost totally eliminated condiments in favor of our full menu of Dash products, with a flavor for each protein source. 

Following my example, even my son has become fanatical about checking the sodium count on the meals he buys each day at work.

Dairy had also been a truly challenging restriction. As a born and bred Philadelphian, I have regularly enjoyed soft pretzels since elementary school.

But I had never understood that their golden color was the result of a whey bath - or made the connection between eating them and my occasional intestinal distress.

Instead, I now think of “sub-diets” of each restricted food. 

If I can’t avoid salt at one meal, I try to eat less than a relatively low daily maximum amount of it for the rest of the day.

Small amounts of some high-sodium foods, such as the “forbidden” mustard and ketchup, have become a tasty dinner reward for days of otherwise carefully measured eating.

What tastes better than spicy brown mustard on a warm, soft pretzel or ketchup on a turkey-based meatloaf?

As the child of parents who both had heart disease – we regularly ate traditional fatty Polish foods in my youth – I have long monitored a high cholesterol count. 

Today, I have become even more of a “PITA” about reading labels carefully than I had been in the past. 

At this point, most canned foods have too much salt unless specifically labeled as “reduced sodium.”  Even the pita bread I used to use in place of regular bread is high in sodium.

While my choices to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly have been important to me, why I make them has been even more important in motivating me to stick to my diet.

In other words, as I learned from the Inner Game of Tennis and the Stages of Change, my psychological buy-in and acceptance of my choices to eat and live better have made all the difference.

I don’t avoid sugar because of calories or salt because of how it clogs my arteries.

I don’t exercise simply to control my weight.

Instead, I consciously choose not to eat them or to limit how much I have, with the specific purpose of improving my health.  That is exactly why I still do cardiac rehab workouts nearly five years after my heart surgery.

Yet when I dine with clients or friends, I always get the same well-meaning but skeptical questions:

In reply, I sometimes jokingly offer to show them my admission ticket to the “Zipper Club.”

That is a popular euphemism for the long scar where my sternum was sawed down the middle to provide access for my bypass surgery.

More seriously, I explain, briefly and without emotion, that my diet choices are the price I am willing to pay to spend my life with my wife and children. 

I want to have a retirement full of the community service I have done for many years. For that, I need to remain fit.

If the questioner is still curious, I explain my habit of mindful eating, and the other meal choices discussed in this article. 

Just as I have shared information for many years about helping the families of persons with autism and other disabilities, I am now always glad to discuss how my family has helped me improve my cardiac health.

While I will probably never eat kielbasa again, I can still look forward to my multi-sensory memory of enjoying that food with my family on holidays. 

Its strong aroma in our refrigerator takes me back to standing in line with my father and brother at the local provisioner my family always preferred at holidays.

This year’s Easter dinner at my sister-in-law’s home provided a welcome reminder of why I eat the way I do.

Historically, our Easter dinners have always included several traditional meals that are now all in my "rearview mirror”: kielbasa, smoked ham, and Eastern European dessert delicacies such as nut bread and kruschiki.

And so it was again this year, plus desserts, for our other family members – but not for me.

Instead, paraphrasing Stills’ lyrics - “If you can't eat what you love, love what you eat” – my wife helped my sister-in-law prepare delicious foods that I could relish: turkey, spinach with olive oil and lemon dressing, potatoes roasted with olive oil and rosemary, and a mix of zesty vegetables.

Most importantly, I had no regrets about passing up the traditional foods on the table because of my nutrition and health concerns.

Instead, I chose to enjoy the foods I did have on my plate – and how thoughtfully my sister-in-law had prepared them just for me.

It has been heartwarming since my surgery to see my extended family support my healthier lifestyle – and let me share my gratitude afterward.

When we got home, I sent my sister-in-law my appreciation for her efforts on my behalf – just as I have told my wife for many years.