chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

After the Bar

Personal & Financial

How Lawyers Can Implement a High-Quality Diet for Optimal Health

Lauren Britt Skattum


  • Nutrition accounts for more than 70 percent of all preventable diseases and more than 30 percent of all-cause mortality.
  • A clinical trial about the effects of a diet very high in fiber from fruit and vegetables showed, over 12 weeks, a reduction of cholesterol that was equivalent to a therapeutic dose of statin medication.
  • Eliminating processed, high-inflammatory foods while adding in a few easy tweaks allows us to be healthier, feel better, improve anxiety and mental clarity, and be more productive.
How Lawyers Can Implement a High-Quality Diet for Optimal Health Tymczyj

Jump to:

Food is my love language. I love to eat, cook, and garden; if food is involved—I’m all in. I feed the people I love, and having grown up in deep south Alabama—butter and bacon are a part of my soul. Breakfast in high school was a ritualized pop tart topped with cancer-causing margarine and bacon. Lunch was a McDonald’s double cheeseburger. Every. Single. Day.

I tell you this to emphasize that knowing and learning how to eat healthy is not innate. Within our genetics is a craving for fat, salt, and sugar—which has kept us safe in an evolutionary sense, helping humanity to survive scarcity, famine, and running from the tigers. If you didn’t grow up with your parents pushing fruits and vegetables, chances are, like me, they were not your priority. 

Over time, a lack of priority turns into habits and one more daunting task that must be incorporated into our already saturated days—pun intended. Learning what to eat, how much we need to eat, how to cook it, and possibly getting our families to eat it is now insurmountable. This is true of most people. But it is especially true for busy professionals, even physicians, who, of all people, should know better.

Why Nutrition Matters

Nutrition accounts for less than 1 percent of all medical education. Yet, nutrition accounts for more than 70 percent of all preventable diseases and more than 30 percent of all-cause mortality. When we, as physicians, have limited time but also lack knowledge of the lifestyle changes that can affect our health, well-being, longevity, and, in short, our entire lives, it makes it even harder for us to adequately educate the public on the specifics of a healthy diet.

During the past 50 years, lifestyle factors have been identified as modifiable factors associated with death. In 2013, the number of deaths worldwide among all age groups amounted to nearly 55 million; 70 percent of these deaths were caused by noncommunicable diseases. One-third of these fatalities were caused by cardiovascular disease, followed by cancer at 15 percent.

A high-quality diet abundant in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish is one of the most important factors in preventing early death and disability worldwide. Studies translating risk reduction into measures of life expectancy calculated that populations with a low-risk profile (no smoking, physically active, healthy dietary pattern) live up to 10–15 years longer than those with a high-risk profile.

Nutrition and Your Mental Health

Moreover, nutrition doesn’t just feed our bodies; it also feeds our brains. Cognitive decline is considered an accepted part of the aging process but is shown to accelerate when inflammation settles in via oxidative stress and free radicals. This inflammatory process also affects how we process information in real time, experience emotions, and store facts for future recall. The most dramatic finding is that eliminating processed foods and high-inflammatory foods such as soda and alcohol can stop the insult. In contrast, hydration and foods that directly fight inflammation, like blueberries, kiwi, and cruciferous vegetables (i.e., kale, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), can give you a mental boost. Those office fruit and veggie trays just got a promotion.

Diet is critical in mediating inflammatory responses linked to mental health problems. Participants who consumed a diet consistent with the inflammatory dietary pattern had a statistically significant increased risk of developing depression over time after adjusting for multiple confounders. The inflammatory dietary pattern was high in sugar-sweetened soft drinks, refined grains, red meat, diet soft drinks, and margarine and low in wine, coffee, olive oil, green leafy, and yellow vegetables.

Food Is Our First Medicine

Changing our daily nutrition can have long-term benefits, but can’t we worry about that later when we have less to do? No, we can’t.

A clinical trial about the effects of a diet very high in fiber from fruit and vegetables showed, over 12 weeks, a reduction of cholesterol that was equivalent to a therapeutic dose of statin medication. A statin medication commonly prescribed for high cholesterol. Additionally, the greater the dietary change, the greater the cholesterol reduction. This is additionally encouraging, as sweeping changes can result in dramatic health effects.

How to Start Repairing Your Diet

Eliminate processed foods and a high-inflammatory diet. If food comes packaged in a bag or a box, don’t eat it. I joke with my patients that if you wonder what I would say about it, the chances are the answer is to put it down and walk away. Ideally, you should clean out your pantry and start over. But I also hate waste, so instead, I encourage you to take this as an opportunity to enjoy your last (insert your go-to trash snack here).

Grocery Shopping Tips

A good rule of thumb is to shop at the grocery store’s periphery. Packaged and processed foods typically reside in the center aisles because they are packed with chemicals for elongated shelf life and don’t require refrigeration.

When looking at all that beautiful produce, seek out the most colorful foods. For instance, if you are going to buy grapes, buy red grapes rather than green grapes or a red bell pepper rather than green. Both are good choices and definitely better than chips, but the more colorful option has more phytonutrients.

Phytonutrients, more commonly known as antioxidants, are chemical compounds that plants make to protect themselves. When consumed, these color-rich foods have similar anti-inflammatory benefits, disease prevention, and immune system stimulation. Every color serves a different purpose. By filling your plate with a multitude of colors, you ensure that you and your family are getting a robust assortment of all the good stuff.

Fiber Is Key

Fiber is the single greatest underutilized nutrient in the United States. Fiber is the key to health, weight loss, and detox. There are two different types of fiber—soluble and insoluble.

Soluble Fiber

Soluble fiber is obtained from food we eat and aids digestion by helping feed the microbiome of your digestive tract. Fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes feed the bacteria that naturally live in our gut. This, in turn, aids digestion and promotes gut motility. Fiber-rich foods also lower blood sugar and cholesterol because the calories you have eaten are not the calories you have absorbed; the bacteria consumed some of them.

Insoluble Fiber

On the flip side, insoluble fiber is also necessary, but it is found more frequently in supplement form. Insoluble fiber pulls water in the digestive tract to help move stool through the colon, which helps prevent constipation but does little for overall health. When you feed your gut, 100 kilocalories of cookies is not the same as 100 kilocalories of kale. When assessing how much fiber you need, 45 grams is ideal. Women should have at least 25 grams, and men should have at least 38 grams.

Eat Nuts—In Moderation

Nuts contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which are also full of fiber and protein and help decrease cholesterol and blood sugar. Additionally, research has shown that nuts high in Omega-3s help lower inflammatory response in rheumatoid arthritis and may be protective against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

However, not all nuts are created equal. Pecans, walnuts, and almonds are among the highest nutritional benefits across all categories. A daily handful is sufficient for nutritional benefit. I keep a large bag in my car and desk so that when I am hungry during a busy day, I can make a good choice while also fulfilling my daily intake goals.

Water Is Critical to Survival

Research and anecdotal experience have proven that while humans can survive weeks without food, we will die in three days without water. Our brains are 80 percent water. Coffee is typically the first thing we reach for when we are exhausted or need to focus. I would argue it should be water. I don’t have anything against caffeine, and coffee can often be the only plant-based food people consume, but it is water that will hydrate and lubricate your brain's neural circuits.

Additionally, adequate hydration (roughly one ounce per pound of body weight at baseline) allows the body to flush toxins from our systems—whether acquired by intake or disease. If you need a true pick-me-up, chug eight ounces of water first thing in the morning, before every meal, and approximately 10 minutes before any activity that requires additional focus.

What about Supplements?

I do not routinely recommend supplements to my patients. Just as detrimental as having too little of a nutrient, it can be equally as damaging to have too much. The better part of valor is to have your levels checked by your physician and take a sharpshooter approach to replacement and supplementation rather than taking multivitamins or multiple vitamins. The only caveat is Vitamin C for immunity and Vitamin D in the winter, specifically for those who live in northern climates where the sun fails to penetrate through parkas.

Fad Diets and Nutritional Labels

People frequently ask me what the best diet is. My mantra is the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM) recommendation to eat whole food, mostly plants, and not too much. Beyond that, I recommend following the diet you are most likely to stick to.

I don’t think veganism is superior; I personally struggle to adhere to it. I also know a lot of really unhealthy vegans who eat tons of processed foods. This is where a whole food, plant-based diet shines—no need for nutritional labels. The beauty of an apple or carrot is that you don’t need a nutrition label because it is a single, easily identifiable ingredient.

If you eat foods that require a nutrition label, which I do, the two most important things to look at are the number of added sugars and the fiber-to-carb ratio. Despite popular belief, the complex carbs in grains, lentils, and beans are important for health. It is the processed simple carbs, a result of refined grains and added sugar, that are the culprit in the diabetes and obesity pandemic.

Carb-to-Fiber Ratio

When comparing bread, look at the carb-to-fiber ratio. An ideal ratio would be 3:1. A 5:1 ratio is good, but if you get to 9:1, you should probably spit it out. For example, 15 grams of carbs and 5 grams of fiber are great. Fifteen grams of carbs and 3 grams of fiber are OK. Forty-five grams of carbs and 5 grams of fiber are not worth eating.

Added Sugar

Added sugar should be as minimal as possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 12 grams of added sugar in a child’s diet per day. Most breakfast cereals surpass this recommendation. ACLM recommends no more than 10 grams for women and 15 grams for men. Sneaky locations for sugar are yogurt, even the fancy Greek kind, crackers, and salad dressings (which seems unfair). I make my own salad dressing, which is not difficult, and a big batch will last in the fridge for a week. Regardless, it is time to start looking at the labels. Then, start teaching your kids to do the same.

Mindset of Abundance

Eliminating processed, high-inflammatory foods while adding in a few easy tweaks allows us to be healthier, feel better, improve anxiety and mental clarity, and be more productive. The bad news is that, as high-achieving individuals, our instinct when people tell us what to do is to rebel. I resonate with this and have found that having a mindset of abundance will often offset the feeling of loss.

For example, if you focus on adding the good foods we discussed above, the processed cancer-causing foods will naturally start to fall away. I recommend this to my patients and personally try to maintain an 80/20 lifestyle. If I am careful 80 percent of the time, I don’t even flinch if I want pizza and a beer on the weekend. If I eat that way daily, I can tell by my mood, joints, thought processing, and overall well-being.

Small actionable choices we make daily form our habits, and our habits make our lives. So, look at the label, chug some water, add beans, eat some nuts, and make your plate a rainbow. Life is short, and you are worth taking care of.