Written by Kelly Raleigh, MFA & FSR Writer
Often, when we think about health and fitness, the first thing that comes to mind is hitting the gym. We’ve all heard about diet and exercise, but wellness should be taken with a holistic approach that focuses on mind, body, and spirit. Taking care of your body is no small feat, though. It is important to do the things you enjoy doing and still be mindful of making healthy choices. The military is also beginning to shift towards a holistic approach to wellness. Jessica Anderson works with the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness program as a dietician. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask her some questions about what she does and the population that she serves.
Q: What types of contracts are you currently working on/have worked on in the past as a sports dietician?
A: I am currently based at Fort Drum where I work with another dietician serving an entire brigade of over 5,000 service members. Prior to working with military personnel, I have worked with high school sports teams, adults looking to train for specific events such as triathlons, and professional athletes. I was a competitive figure skater, and I work with other figure skaters at the recreational and team levels. I recently worked with a Rockette and ballet dancer, too.
Q: In your opinion, what role does nutrition play in a holistic approach to health and fitness?
A: No matter your discipline, whether you are trying to optimize your general health or excel in tactical performance, nutrition plays a huge role in a holistic approach to health and fitness. What you eat affects your mind and body. I always say that you can’t out-supplement a bad diet. Recently there has been a push to change the way we look at military health and fitness, especially when it comes to preventing musculoskeletal injuries and increasing overall soldier performance. I’ve been working with the military since 2019, and I’ve witnessed the relationship between nutrition and optimizing soldier readiness.
Being an athlete and occasional swim coach, I’ve had the opportunity to sit-in on some group sessions with nutritionists. Working with an entire brigade is something else entirely. I wanted to learn about Jessica’s unique method for encouraging healthy habits.
Q: On your website you mention that nutrition is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. How do you approach working with groups?
A: That really depends on the population. With nutrition, all sorts of factors must be taken into account, which is why we do one-on-one consultations that can get into the nitty gritty for a more thorough assessment. In those, we look at every soldier as an individual from what their personal goals are to their family health history. For groups, we dive into the influential factors that impact outcomes. This can be anything from the climate of where they are or where they are going to what they are able to carry on their backs.
Q: Is there something common that most people seem to be missing when it comes to nutrition?
A: Meal skipping is the biggest offender. It is very common for people to skip meals because of stress and the busyness of their schedules. You might say, “I’ll skip breakfast and have a cup of coffee.” Caffeine suppresses hunger. Then you might skip lunch because you’re too busy. If this happens too often hunger and satisfactory cues can become desensitized. By dinnertime, you might back-load and eat more than you normally would have. This is pretty common in Western culture, but it is something that really affects your nutritional wellbeing.
Q: What are the basics that make up the foundation of your approach?
A: For starters, less is more. As a nutritionist, I try to honor an individual’s goals, whether they are performance or health related. I use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, making sure that first and foremost the basic needs are met. Then we look at meal consistency, honoring hunger cues, and getting in tune with your body. A lot of people think that I’m going to put them on a diet, but I’m not into that. I want to nurture your relationship with food. Food is fuel, and we have to fuel for our daily lives and feed ourselves faithfully. I ask people what they like and dislike. I try to emphasize enjoyable nutrition because that is more sustainable than a bland diet. Strength and conditioning coaches do the same thing when they create fitness plans. We try to think of the soldier. We have to think about them beyond their service and supply them with tools that they can carry for the rest of their lives.
Q: What do you consider when creating a nutrition plan for an individual?
A: We are really thorough. We do initial intakes and follow ups with the soldiers. We talk about goals and familial history. Because we are a piece of the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) program, we also support the divisions. We might set up referrals for psychologists or trainers when we talk to the soldiers about stress, fatigue, and injuries. All of these components affect nutrition and overall wellness, and we have to look at nutrition as being fluid as strength and conditioning or mental health. It all depends on goals and what phase of life an individual may be in, such as heading into deployment or focusing on strength. We also look at whether an individual is living in the barracks and has access to dining or if they are living off-post and cooking for themselves. Life changes every day, but food never goes away. We exercise for a specific duration every day; it’s time bound. Nutrition is dynamic and constant.
Q: How do you adjust your approach to working with active-duty military members?
A: Before 2019, I really had no prior exposure to the tactical setting. I learned pretty quickly that if you can work in a tactical setting that you can work well in the athletic field. With the military, you can have a plan and within ten minutes it can change. All of a sudden, units might be deploying. You have to be resilient and flexible. We have to transform into whatever the Army needs on the flip of a coin. Difficult as it is, it can be extremely rewarding. The military setting is also different because it is such a diverse population. I work with 18- and 19-year-old soldiers who started serving right after high school as well as other much older soldiers. We really have to take personal factors into account when developing nutrition plans, but every day is something new. I don’t know what I’m going to get on any given day.
Q: When do you recommend using supplements such as protein and vitamins?
A: Protein powder and pre-work out powder are definitely popular; unfortunately, I see a lot of misuse and overuse. Supplements, like anything else, depend on the person. I’m not anti-supplement, but food should play a key role in a person’s nutrition. At the end of the day, supplements will only play roughly a 2-3% role. Without having a good nutritional regiment, supplements won’t help much. Supplements, such as protein powder, have some positives. The convenience factor seems to be the biggest one, especially with busy routines it can be easier to drink your meals instead of actually eating. Whether or not I recommend using supplements depends on an individual’s goals or other factors such as allergies and illness that can be helped with dietary supplements. We do educate athletes and soldiers about misuse and the not-so-great regulations regarding dietary supplements for purity, potency, quality, and effectiveness. We teach individuals to better assess their options and to be better advocates for their bodies by taking ownership over making healthy choices.
Q: What are the biggest challenges when it comes to providing nutrition consultation to soldiers?
A: With soldiers, athletes, or anyone, developing relationships is probably the biggest challenge. I oversee over 5,000 service members with one other dietician. Because the program is new and just officially adopted, we don’t know when or whether or not we will be able to expand the team. Getting one-on-one face time with individuals can be really tough when you’re working with such a large population. Also, we are still developing the relationship of the H2F program with the Army, which is rich with traditions and preconceived notions about fitness. We are doing our best to develop trust, which takes time. All in all, when dealing with tactical or civilian nutrition, any dietician will tell you that creating a food plan is such a small part of what we do.
The Army isn’t alone in developing a more holistic approach to health and fitness. Across the board, militaries are discovering the need for an approach to health that encompasses the mind, body, and spirit of the soldier. By combining strength and conditioning with nutrition and promoting mental welfare, there is hope that an individual’s career in service will be longer and they will emerge from the military stronger and able to lead a healthy lifestyle.
It is important to note that holistic health and fitness isn’t just for the military. We all should consider how what we do and what we eat fits into our daily life and affects our mental and physical conditions. That brings me to my next question, as I know many of us are working from home and feeling the pains of snacking throughout the day with our fridge and cabinets at our disposal.
Q: What are some foods that everyone should have in their pantry?
A: In general, I recommend having a variety of carbohydrates. Carbs have gotten a bad rep lately, but they can actually be really good for you! It depends on the person, how much energy they’re expending, how much food they need. You should try to keep a variety of foods. Buy foods that you actually enjoy. Me? I’m a fiend for peanut butter. I also like to have oats and canned items like tuna or salmon in my pantry. With a busy schedule, look for convenience items that also benefit health and performance.
It was here that we joked about how we both must have two jars of peanut butter at all times—one for people and one for our dogs.
I wanted my final question to be pointed directly at Jessica’s experience and personal methodology, and for that I turned back to her website.
Q: What does your slogan “Fuel for the GOLD” mean to you?
A: To me, “the gold” means whatever success looks like to an individual, which could be meeting an athletic, performance, or personal goal. In order to achieve these successes, I look to building sustainable nutrition regiments that promote longevity. We want to fuel for success for your entire life. No matter who you are, no matter what you do, you need food that will fill you up and help you achieve whatever you set out to do. Food is so important in many different ways, and not just for personal health. Food is a staple in every culture, with unique preparations and ingredients, and it brings people together. Whether you are getting together with family, friends, coworkers, or your community, if you are in mourning or celebrating, food brings us closer to each other. We have to nurture our relationships with food and understand how it affects mental and physical aspects of our lives. My goal is for everyone to feel confident in their fueling and become a fueling champion for life.
Learn more about Jessica’s nutrition services at www.atpsportsnutrition.com.