GMO Inside had the pleasure of interviewing the fabulous and insightful Ashley Koff, R.D.
The nutrition consultant, health authority and registered dietitian Ashley Koff is a self-described "Qualitarian." Koff advocates "eating the better quality foods available—choosing whole foods over processed parts, natural over made in a chemistry lab and organic whenever possible to avoid hormones, synthetic fertilizers, GMOs and harmful pesticides—to optimally fuel the body."
Koff frequently appears on national television programs, including “The Dr. Oz Show,” “The Doctors”, and national and local news programs. As well, she is regularly featured in and writes articles for national publications, including The New York Times, O!: The Oprah Magazine, Prevention and Women’s Health. As well as being a speaker, panelist, author, emcee, and moderator, Koff maintains a private practice, with celebrity clients including Molly Sims, Emily Deschanel, and Elizabeth Hasselbeck.
In her blog featured on the Huffington Post, Koff says that, “GM [genetically modified] foods are the second and third hand smoke of this century.” The metaphor is used to explain GMO seeds can blow over to a neighboring organic farm and contaminate the organic, quality food. Additionally, the metaphor is used to explain a global problem: “if we allow GM seeds here, we keep them going everywhere else in the world. Thus, as the EU and other countries around the world ban GM foods and seeds, we act as a rogue entity passively bringing the very thing they seek to ban to their lands via birds, the wind and the ocean.” Also, cigarettes were once unlabeled and people actually thought they were healthy. A lot has changed. She explains that it is important for people to have a choice with food. Not having a label for GM ingredients “harms people who want to choose to not do the unhealthy thing.”
Q: What do you think of the idea of preventative healthcare? Focusing on the before—diet and nutrition—to prevent disease instead of focusing on the after—treatment?
A: It’s hard for me to even separate out prevention because the likelihood of us getting anything is pretty significant, but what we find is that when somebody has focused on prevention, we are building a healthier body. So, the idea is that whenever the thing that does happen, because I don’t think we can prevent everything, like tripping and falling on the street, is that when you’ve taken care of yourself from a preventative standpoint, your body is in better shape to then manage the things that do end up coming about.
The other part of preventative health that I think makes it what I focus on and believe in is that it looks at the body as a whole, instead of looking at one particular ailment as isolated to a part of the body.
Q: I read that you spoke at the Right2Know March where participants marched for 313 miles (from NYC to Washington, DC) to demand labeling GMOs back in 2011. What did you speak about?
A: People will ask me if I think GMOs are bad and what I turn around and say—and this is the crux of the conversation—is that my goal, as a dietician, is to empower you through education to make the better quality choices, so that you are playing an active role in taking responsibility for your health to the best of your ability.
The problem that I have is that my job, without labeling, is virtually impossible because I can’t tell you that while I’m suspicious about something and its role in our health—the health of the animals that are fed GMOs, and the health of the environment because of GMOs, all of which impact our health—I cannot tell you not to choose it because it’s not always apparent where it is. So, the label is really frustrating to me, and significantly frustrating to all of us in the sense of if you have any part of you that is concerned about something that is untested for humans in the long-term or even in the shorter long-term, you can’t know if it’s in your food or dietary supplements. That challenge is one that I’m totally uncomfortable with, that the only reason why we don’t have a label is because there are companies that are just saying, “We won’t let you have them.” To me, the fact that the government hasn’t intervened and said, “sorry companies you do not have the right to just not disclose” is totally unacceptable.
The crux of my conversation at the march was as a healthcare practitioner, I believe that we need this label so that all of us can make informed choices. And if we choose to consume products that have GMOs and we are informed about it, then that’s our choice. But right now, we are these guinea pigs.
Q: Do you have any words of support for the non-GMO activists of 2014?
A: My comment in terms of support is recognizing that, first of all, I am always very clear that nutrition and health to me is not a partisan issue on any level. It’s not an affordability issue on any level. I worked in advertising; I worked with food companies to change their packages on a Thursday for a Friday if they just found out that someone in the media said something great about their product. So, this concept that it’s going to cost more or that’s it’s going to force certain people out of a job are not substantiated.
The other part is there’s a tactic where in a number of instances, I’ve just been called “overly emotional” about the issue. I am emotional about health definitively, but I think what activists have to realize is that it is okay for us to be emotional. We are really frustrated. In times of great frustration, comes a breakthrough, and what we need, is to realize that as any frustrated activist out there on this issue, by finding other people who share your frustration, it’s not that you feel less frustrated, you find your support network because you can be more focused and equally as, if not more, impactful and that frustration can turn into really positive power. Whereas, sometimes it just seems like you’re sitting at home or in the grocery store just throwing up your hands in frustration by yourself. Come together as activists and come together in a way that respects every single person’s right to choose. It is about everyone’s right to choose. It’s just about your choices being taken away from you until we have the label.
Q: Why should the debate over GM foods demand dieticians’ attention?
A: That’s a really important one. So, I had a conversation about this with dieticians. And I actually am not a member of the Academy, which is the dietetic professional organization, because I feel that by being silent, they say that they are reviewing the science on GMOs and it’s fine if they want to review the science. They might be going for a while because I don’t see any new science happening. But, the fact of not taking a stance on a label, which is as we just discussed, related to the core of our job, which is providing information for people to make choices. That is really frustrating to me. So, I’ve said to other dieticians and I’ve called on them to not be members or to decide whether they want to be part of an organization that is not participating in one of the leading conversations in nutrition and health today.
I think on another part, as a dietician, it is really important to come back to “why are you doing what you’re doing?” I got into it because I want to be able to educate people. I’m not in the position to tell people what to do; I don’t do that, I don’t say, “eat this, not that.” What I do, is I explain to them how what they are eating will impact their body. And the fact that in that explanation, I can’t fully, scientifically say, “here’s what GMOs do” is really bothering to me. And the fact that there is no labeling, so they’re actively—they being anyone who is promoting GMOs and using GMOs—keeping us, as dieticians, from doing our jobs effectively. So, I think that’s why as a dietician, you should be an ally, as any healthcare practitioner, but especially the dieticians, whose charge is to educate people about nutrition and what that means for a healthier body, you have to be involved in this issue.
Q: Could you tell me more about being a “Qualitarian” and how it relates to GMOs?
A: I created that phrase—“label” if you will—out of frustration. Frustration has actually a lot to do with GMOs. I remember somebody saying to me, “That veggie burger is better for me than the lamb burger or the wild salmon burger” and I said, “Well, I don’t know. Is the soy genetically modified in the veggie burger? Has the soy been extracted, processed, chemically washed, etc.? What’s in that veggie burger?” Having that conversation helped me to say, “Okay, even if my diet is all about plants, or if it’s about plants and animals, then, I need to know what I’m putting into my body are the better quality choices. What I mean by “better quality” is “what my body is going to recognize most easily.” We know better quality choices are what contribute to better health.
And going back to your first question about prevention, that’s what I focus on, the genius of being a Qualitarian is that it is the overarching umbrella for every other dietary choice or program or anything else you follow. If you don’t pay attention to quality and just say, “I’m just going to count calories”, “I’m going to only eat plants”, or any of these other dietary choices, you are not likely to be making the choice that is going to deliver better or optimal health. So, quality has to be a key factor.
Q: Does a Qualitarian diet give more energy to the average person than the genetically modified energy bars, energy drinks and supplements on the market right now?
A: So quality is one of four pillars that I use in my nutrition plan for optimal health; one goal of optimal health is better energy. I make that point because we have to be really careful when we are talking about what energy is today because a lot of people think that stimulants and being stimulated by substances is energy. That’s not energy; that’s stimulation. So, when I say do I think that quality delivers better energy…I think quality has to be a factor in any plan for better energy.
(Photo to the right from Ashley Koff's Instagram account)
Do I think specifically GM dietary supplements or GM energy drinks are detractors? I am very suspicious of them. I avoid them personally in my pursuit to optimal health. I advise others to avoid them in their pursuit to optimal health. I can’t say definitively. But, my supposition is that GMOs impact energy because they are different. And when something is genetically different, let’s not kid ourselves, the body is genius; it’s like going through a machine that takes a circle and thinking that a triangle or a square will fit through there. Our body recognizes that, so our body has to rotate and say, “Now I need a triangle or a square”, but what if I don’t have a triangle or a square? The fact that we ask the body to do anything different other than read what’s coming in and be like “yeah got it, it goes there”, it makes it less efficient. So does that detract from energy? I believe that it does.
Many will argue, especially on the GM side, that I am not a scientist and I don’t believe in science and what I just described is such an oversimplification. The reality is, the human body is an amazing science machine, but every single human body is different. In creating a singular thing and saying that’s got to work across all humans and all animals, in my opinion, is just as anti-science or a misuse of science as not using a scientific explanation that I might accused of.
Q: A lot of people talk about avoiding GM foods, but not a lot of people mention non-GMO vitamins and supplements? Why are choosing non-GMO supplements important?
A: First and foremost, at the total core of this, is that dietary supplements are supplemental to a healthy diet. In my opinion, even if you’re using supplements in a medical way, as advised with a physician to prevent or to treat or to manage a disease, you are still using them in addition to a healthy diet. The issue is you need to pay even more attention to the quality of those supplements. The reason for that is that you are making the choice to include them. You can make great food choices and just not take any dietary supplement. The fact that it is a choice means that I always say supplements should be at least as good of quality as your diet, if not better.
Most dietary supplements are instructed for consumption every single day. So say I only have a soy latte once a month and maybe my soy is GMO. That’s very different than taking a multivitamin every single day with GMOs in it. So, there’s an accumulation factor and a frequency factor that is really important to pay attention to as well.
Q: I’ve read that you excel in determining the missing ingredient or ingredients from your client’s diets that have kept them from being successful. What have you found to be the most looked-over ingredient?
A: Water. We get too much of a lot of other stuff and there are things that are hard for us to get, but everyone can do better with some water. And it’s non-GMO.
Q: What do you see as the next big food trend?
A: I just came back from Expo West, so I saw a ton of trends. Probably the biggest trend that we are seeing right now, which is great, is looking at the quality of food. I think there are certain things that are trendy, but I think the bigger trend is probably better quality plant-based sources. You’re seeing more plant foods like veggie burgers, or the cheeses, or the spreads, coming from a less processed place. So, it’s no longer just the idea that just because you can do something that is plant-based is enough, now it’s like what is the quality of that plant-based thing? And obviously, I think liquid nutrition is a huge one in terms of juices, smoothies and all of that.
Thank you, Ashley Koff for taking the time to speak with us!
For more information, please visit her website: www.ashleykoffapproved.com.