Photography by Kimberley Hasselbrink, unless noted
Interview with Carly Knowles, MS, RDN, LD
Registered dietitian nutritionist Carly Knowles discusses her nutrition philosophy, food fallacies, and the purpose behind her cookbook, The Nutritionist’s Kitchen.
What’s your educational background?
I was a fine arts major. After graduating, I had the opportunity to work for a nonprofit in Peru. I lived off the grid in a remote village and was blown away by just how important access to food and nutrition are—people were going blind, simply because of a lack of vitamin A. After I came back, I got my master of science in nutrition.
In your book, you talk about food being medicine. Tell us about that:
I worked as a clinical dietitian in a hospital, and I realized that we weren’t using food in the way that I had been taught in grad school: as a healing tool. And that was what really drew me in even more to food being medicine as much as nutrition. Because it seemed like a novel idea, I decided to write a cookbook about it.
Seasonality is a big aspect of your philosophy. Do you think it’s misunderstood?
Yes, I absolutely do. Being in a global food system and having access to pretty much anything anytime of the year, in any form we want—fresh, frozen, or canned—removes us from our connection with nature. And I think that disconnects us from ourselves to a degree because we’re not required to ask ourselves what food might suit us better. Eating seasonally can be a really easy thing to do, but because we’ve been so removed from it, it’s no longer innate wisdom and we have to learn it again.
What are your top seasonal eating tips?
First and foremost, be flexible. If you have a year-round farmers market, that’s going to change everything. You can walk through a farmers market and, just by nature of what’s available, learn what is in season. And if you’ve had a tomato or winter squash in peak season, you can taste the difference. That’s why I put a seasonal produce chart in the appendix of my book. But some companies will pick their peak-season produce and freeze them, so you can also find great-tasting seasonal strawberries in December, for example.
What’s the top nutrition issue that bothers you?
Most of my patients are women, and nine out of ten are at war with their bodies. There’s a lot of behavioral counseling that goes into being a dietitian, and it just breaks my heart that, for as much work as we’ve done as a culture around body positivity, women are still saturated with messages that we’re not good enough unless we look a certain way.
As a result, my patients and I often can’t even get to the conversation about nutrition because we first have to get through the bigger hurdle, which is learning to like food again. I always provide compassion and positive affirmation, which makes a big difference.
I can relate to them, too—I’m a mom of a twenty-month-old and have another on the way. My body’s constantly changing.
Would you share a story of how a patient turned her life around?
I got chills thinking about that. I’ll never forget this one woman, who I worked with for about six months.
She wanted to change the way she ate but was very structured in how she went about it. But she needed to admit that her process had always failed her. Over time, we delved more into to her relationships, lifestyle choices, and relationship with food.
She had been in a really bad marriage. She was food-shamed by her partner, so she gained weight and was depressed. After it ended, food became more of a coping mechanism than fuel: she changed how she ate to feel better, but she never healed the emotional trauma. I referred her to a counselor, and we worked with her on both the emotional aspect of eating and her history in this relationship. And I worked with her to learn how to listen to her body cues, understand when she was full and when she was hungry, and be mindful about portions and flavor.
Eventually, she felt like she had the tools she needed to do it on her own. She still stays in touch, and she’s thriving. It’s one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had as a dietitian.
Are you neat or messy in the kitchen? Do you get help?
I used to be messier, but now I’m cleaner. I’ve learned that, to become a more proficient cook, cleaning along the way is essential. That said, I love cooking. I find it very meditative.
So, even though it’d be nice if someone helped prep vegetables or chop things for me now and again, the truth is, more often than not it is something I look forward to because it forces me to be present and live in the moment.
What are your favorite go-to foods?
I love probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, as well as fermented foods, nut butters, and seafood. My whole family loves making smoothies. Ours is a whole foods diet: plant-based with side of meat.
What do you think are the biggest food misconceptions?
People are obsessed with getting enough protein. In a standard American diet, we get so much protein that it’s often the last thing we need to think about. We actually need more fiber: whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. I also spend a lot of time debunking myths around soy and explaining why I believe it’s a very beneficial, healthy protein source.
What’s your top piece of nonfood advice?
Hands down, it’s to slow down. We all have different reasons to do so, but I find if most people, including me, would take a deep breath, look at our food before we start cooking or eating it, and become present in the moment, then we can change a lot about our health.
For more info, visit carlyknowles.com or follow Carly on Instagram @carlyknowlesnutrition