More New Orleans nutrition with Molly Kimball (part 2)

In part 1 of this interview with nutrition expert Molly Kimball, we covered daiquiris, gluten & guilt, among other things. And in the week since posting that, I've received a lot of feedback from people – most notably about Molly's refreshing dietary philosophy, the interesting world that is New Orleans, and questions about the appearance of part 2. In a culture where dietary advice is often sensationalized and ever-changing, Molly's approach to health and nutrition is remarkably simple & realistic – a great reminder that eating well isn't an all-or-nothing proposition, and at the end of the day, it's about enjoying your food. I look forward to seeing what other projects she takes on in the future, and in the meantime, here's the rest of my interview with Molly. Part 2 includes how Hurricane Katrina affected her career, indulging vs. obsessing, and king cake.

Can you talk a bit about your background and career path, for people interested in doing what you do?

To be a dietician you get your undergraduate degree in what’s usually called Dietetics, and it’s basically a 4-year Bachelor of Science degree. Then you do an internship after that, and it’s usually about a year-long internship. After your internship you take the RD exam, and hopefully pass it, and then you can practice as a registered dietician. You can have areas of specialty, too. As far as nutrition goes my specialty area is sports nutrition, but I’ve kind of moved away from that as I’ve done more media and communications in the realm of nutrition.

I started out in 1999, and we started the program here at Ochsner in Elmood Fitness Center. I didn’t have much of a marketing budget, so one of the things that I did to generate awareness was write for free for one of these local freebie magazines called Health and Fitness. I actually didn’t think I liked writing; I didn’t like English classes. I took every English in college in intersession so I could knock it out in three weeks and be done with it. But I’m thrilled that I wrote for Health and Fitness for a bunch of reasons. It helped me become a better writer. It kind of helped me develop a writing style. Also, the reason I was doing it was to generate business, and it did.

I wrote for free for them for a couple of years, then they started paying me. Then when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, The Times-Picayune health reporter who had written for The Times-Picayune for years — and had interviewed me for different stories — had to cover other hurricane-related stories in those months after. Several months later when they were ready to start covering health & wellness again, she still had to cover those other beats, so she recommended me to the editor to write as a reporter.

I started out as a reporter for the Times-Picayune, but that meant I had to source everything that I was saying. If I wanted to say something as simple as “Oranges are high in vitamin C,” I had to call a dietician friend of mine and say, “Hey, I need to quote you on this.” My editor thought I should instead write as a columnist, so that I could write as a nutrition expert in first-person rather than having to source everything. This is at a time when newspapers were downsizing, so I was really grateful that he pushed and got it approved, and I started writing as a weekly columnist.

Separate from that, Ochsner and our PR team would reach out to local media with whatever event Ocshner was promoting, and would ask if they could have me come to talk about hydration or whatever it might be. I did that for years for a lot of different stations. Then in 2008, the news director at WGNO hired me as a freelancer not only because I was a registered dietitian, but also because I wrote for The Times-Picayune.

So that Health and Fitness freebie magazine writing job lead to The Times-Picayune, which lead to regular TV segments. My whole message on that is it doesn’t just happen. You pay your dues, you do what you’re good at, you do what you’re passionate about, and you never know where that’s going to lead or where it’s going to end up. I never in a million years thought I’d ever do writing or working on TV — my personality is not at all an exhibitionist “look at me” kind of personality — but I’m happy to be able to have that opportunity because it’s getting that nutrition message out there in all these different venues.

The nutrition world can be confusing. Nutrition science sometimes changes— for example, for decades people were counseled to eat low-fat, and now some types of fat are considered great for our health — and additionally, new diets pop up right and left. How can people avoid feeling overwhelmed, and find a reliable authority, when deciding what to eat?

The key there is having that reliable authority. Finding somebody you trust. If it’s a registered dietician it needs to be somebody who’s going to stay current on the latest research because for the consumer it can be nearly impossible. Websites and many things that look like they’re going to be really reliable aren’t. I think as a consumer it’s hard to sort fact from fiction, especially online.

Where I go to for research is; not everyone has time to do that. There are a lot of health professionals, registered dietitians included, who don’t stay current on the latest research. There are a lot of dietitians who still give the messaging that eggs raise your cholesterol, for example. I think even within the health profession there’s still misinformation that’s perpetuated by health professionals, so I think it’s really important for the consumer to seek out someone that they know is staying current on the latest research.

The other thing is to not be swayed by one reporter, one study. Make sure that if you’re looking at a study, ideally it would be something that’s an analysis of multiple studies. You want it to be large studies, not just something that has a handful of people.

Would you say you have one main motto? What’s your bottom line when it comes to nutrition and health?

I wouldn’t say I have one main motto, but don’t beat yourself up about things, and don’t feel guilty about things. So many times people obsess about something that really isn’t worth it, and then it makes it seem really overwhelming. If you’re obsessing about all these little things and then feel guilty and think “I’ve blown it,” you can’t live like that. Educate yourself on what’s really important and what really matters, keep the focus on those things, and don’t be so hard on yourself. We don’t have to be perfect, we just want to be better than we were.

On my website I say indulge. Because good nutrition and good taste don’t have to exist independently. I really believe that. Almost every day I eat something that’s not necessarily healthy, just because I love it. So indulge in those things that are really worth it to you.

For people traveling to New Orleans and wanting to both indulge in local cuisine but also watch their waistline, do you have any tips?

Look at the Eat Fit NOLA restaurants. Seriously. I’m so excited about it. At one of the restaurants there’s truffle crab fingers. At another, seared crab cakes. And lobster. We had chargrilled oysters the other night. It’s amazing, delicious food, and you’re not having to go to a nice restaurant and just order dry chicken if you want a healthy meal.

Any tips for Mardi Gras and king cake? How not to eat the entire thing?

We did something a few years ago, and now we do it every Mardi Gras for one of our TV segments. You can’t figure out the calories on king cake because it doesn’t really have a label on it. So if you have a slice of king cake the width of a quarter, basically an inch, that’s 100 calories. If you have one the width of your iPhone, that’s 300 calories, and if you have one the size of a dollar bill, that’s 600 calories. Most people go for the iPhone-width slice, and that’s going to be 300 calories. So just kind of know what you’re getting into, and I would say if you want to have something like king cake, have it in place of some other type of carb. Like I was saying earlier — if you know you’re going to have king cake, then at lunch maybe have a salad with some extra protein on it, then have your king cake after that, as opposed to having a pasta dish and then king cake. And stay away from the daiquiris; my gosh. They’re like 1,000+ calories per daiquiri. You could have ten light beers for a single daiquiri.