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Health hero Q&A: This dietitian believes healthy comfort food is no joke

Emily Leland By Emily Leland

Dietitian Jennifer Lewis

Jennifer Lewis knows healthy eating can be especially tough in a city known for great southern food. Fried chicken, biscuits and barbeque are all too easy to find in her native Jacksonville, FL. But the University of North Florida grad and Aetna health coach has made it her mission to help fellow residents live healthier lives through one-on-one coaching that combines dietary expertise and a dash of humor.

“I love encouraging people, promoting healthy habits and seeing the progress they make,” Jennifer says. “Being a part of their triumph over challenges is very rewarding.”

Jennifer earned her degree in dietetics in 2007 and became a registered dietitian in 2010. After several years working in public health, she joined Aetna in 2013. Here she talks about her favorite spots around Jacksonville and what she’d like to be doing at 90.

Q: What motivated you to become a health coach?
A:
During my childhood, being physically active was natural to me. I especially enjoyed being outdoors. I played basketball and still shoot hoops for fun to this day. My love for active lifestyles definitely influenced my desire to become a health coach.

Q: What do you like most about your job?
A:
I enjoy building relationships with a diverse group of people. By listening to members and understanding their unique strengths, I can deliver better support. And I’m always learning from their life experience. Like the strength and perseverance I see people display during difficult times, with finances, the loss of loved ones, or a medical diagnosis. They inspire me every day to be the best coach and person I can be.

Q: You’re a Jacksonville native. What’s your favorite thing about your hometown?
A:
Besides the fact that my family lives here, my favorite thing is the ability to be active outdoors. I love the beaches, parks and the river. I love eating at restaurants and walking around Avondale and San Marco, two quaint historic districts along the banks of the St. Johns River.

Q: What is unique about the health goals or challenges of people in Jacksonville?
A:
Being a lifelong resident, I can relate to the challenges to eating healthy here. Our traditional southern cuisine and family recipes taste great, but aren’t always the healthiest options. Focusing on portion control, moderation and recipe modifications that preserve the traditional flavors but reduce the sodium, fat or calories can really help.

Q: What is your health ambition?
A:
To still be able to practice yoga when I’m 90!

Q: What is your go-to healthy snack?
A:
Apples. Pretty much any fruit.

Q: Can you describe a client that really stands out in your memory?
A:
I work with someone who admitted she lacked cooking skills and dined out for most meals. But she was committed to making healthy changes. We worked together and now she’s preparing easy, healthy meals at home a 2 to 3 times per week. She’s also enjoying new things that she never thought would taste good, like hummus and asparagus. We set small goals, find recipes together, and celebrate her successes.

Q: What was your most fulfilling professional moment to date?
A:
The day I became a registered dietitian. Becoming a dietitian is very competitive because of the limited number of internship programs available. After college, I didn’t have an internship so I started working for the public health department as a nutrition educator. But I still wanted to become a dietitian so I could support and educate community members with chronic diseases. Finally, after two years, I was eligible for the state’s dietetic internship. I completed 1200 hours of supervised practice and passed the registration exam for dietitians.

Q: Where is your favorite place to travel?
A:
Savannah, Georgia. Each time I visit, there is always something new, whether it’s a restaurant or something new I learn about the history.

Q: What’s the one word that people most often use to describe you?
A:
Funny, maybe a little sarcastic. I joke around a lot.

Q: What’s the best piece of health advice you ever received?
A:
Laughter is the best medicine!

Read tips for achieving your fitness goals from health coach Ricky Moore.

About the author

Emily Leland is a writer and marketing professional living in Charleston, SC. Her goal is more exercise, less caffeine and finding balance as a working mom.