Joy Stephenson-Laws of Proactive Health Labs On The 5 Things You Need To Do To Achieve a Healthy Body Weight, And Keep It Permanently
An Interview With Tyler Gallagher
"Don’t punish yourself. Eating healthy should never feel like a punishment. It’s okay if you do not like salad. Blend greens, like spinach and kale, in your morning smoothie. You will still get the benefits of eating a salad without eating a salad."
As a part of our series on “5 Things You Need To Do To Achieve A Healthy Body Weight And Keep It Permanently” we had the pleasure of interviewing Joy Stephenson-Laws, founder and executive director of Proactive Heath Labs.
Joy Stephenson-Laws is founder and executive director of Proactive Health Labs, a national nonprofit health education organization dedicated to ensuring people have the information and tools they need to get and stay healthy. She also is founder and a managing partner of Stephenson, Acquisto & Colman, the healthcare industry’s premier litigation law firm. Ms. Stephenson-Laws is one of the authors of Minerals: The Forgotten Nutrient, Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy. She also is the Honorary Consul of Jamaica in Los Angeles.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born in Jamaica and emigrated to the US at the age of 17. I’ve always had an interest in health and what I could do to stay healthy. I probably got this from my brother, a cardiologist. My mother, who was extremely proud of my brother, encouraged me to become a doctor as well. I had originally planned on following my brother’s path, but toward the end of my college studies, I realized that I was more interested in practicing law than medicine.
So, I continued to law school and found a way to combine my interest in the law with my passion for healthcare. I can tell you that my mom was quite happy with my choice!
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
As a healthcare attorney, I am required to work with and cross-examine various medical experts. It is also my job to educate judges and juries about various issues relating to healthcare and delivery. Over the more than three decades that I have been a healthcare attorney, I must have reviewed more than 50,000 medical records. One thing that struck me was that had most patients known how to stay well, or had their diseases been diagnosed and treated before symptoms occurred, they could have enjoyed much better treatment outcomes. This belief was reinforced by my personal experience of losing loved ones, colleagues, and friends to diseases which, had they been diagnosed early enough and treated more effectively, could either have been controlled or cured.
I clearly saw that the better educated people are about how to proactively protect their health, the more benefits of a healthy life they enjoyed. These include a greater sense of well-being, enhanced performance of daily activities, more energy, disease prevention, and a speedier recovery and better outcome from any necessary medical treatment. And being more educated also allows people to better partner with their healthcare providers in making choices about lifestyle and healthcare management. I always say that an educated patient is a healthier patient.
Recognizing that not enough was being done to give people the information and the tools they need to proactively protect their health, I founded the nonprofit Proactive Health Labs (pH Labs, for short) in 2012 to address this need. I also decided that one of our approaches would be based on working to prevent disease before a person has any symptoms or, in the case of chronic diseases, more effectively manage them. We should not wait to get sick before taking steps to protect our health.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I know it may sound trite, but the primary person would undoubtedly be my mother. She made such an impact on me and influenced me greatly. From her, I acquired my curiosity and passion for learning — a passion that I still very much have and that accounts for my being a voracious reader. She constantly reminded me that education was my only “trust fund.” My mother also taught me that the key to getting ahead and accomplishing our goals in life is a combination of education and good, old fashioned grit and determination. Her belief in the importance of education can been seen in the mission and philosophy of pH Labs.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
At the time I made this “mistake,” I recall being very perplexed and anxious. I lost a fair amount of sleep! But looking back, I now chuckle about how this mistake turned out to be one of the best “mistakes” I ever made. Anyway, I, like most people I know, believed that the best way to achieve success and to make the greatest positive impact on people would be to follow the traditional, “tried and true” career path. So, after finishing my law degree at Loyola University, I immediately tried to fulfill my dream of “giving back” by working as a health attorney at a public legal services group. This was followed by a staff attorney position at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and then work in private practice with a national healthcare law firm.
So, looking from the outside, I was doing all the “right” things professionally. In fact, had the law firm I was with not disbanded, I probably could have made partner. I can tell you that had I continued that path my life would have turned out quite differently. When that firm closed its doors, I was at a crossroads. I could continue the “expected path” or take the risk of venturing out on my own. As I said, I lost a lot of sleep over this decision, and I was literally terrified of making the “wrong choice.” I eventually chose the latter and despite some misgivings from friends and family — who nevertheless supported my decision — I started my own firm. Vince Acquisto and George Colman joined me shortly thereafter and we were off-and-running.
It now makes me smile to think about how hard it was for me to see there are many, many ways to get to a point in our careers where we can really make a difference. But because I took the risk, I have been able to dedicate both my professional and personal lives to supporting causes that have helped me realize my passion for education and awareness of healthcare issues.
When it comes to a “most interesting mistake,” I don’t have one per se, but rather an interesting and important realization that still influences me to this day. When I started my career as a healthcare attorney and began litigating cases on behalf of clients, I was immediately struck by the lack of understanding, the misunderstanding and the misinformation that is out there about health and the healthcare industry as well as about how it literally touches and impacts our daily lives.
I was also surprised to learn that this misunderstanding wasn’t limited to just the public but even to judges, arbitrators, mediators, other attorneys and even some healthcare providers. For me, as someone who grew up around medicine and the healthcare industry, this lack of understanding — and even the outright belief that a lot of misinformation that is out there is true when it isn’t — was a wake-up call.
I also saw how cultural beliefs and “old wives’ tales” could make it harder for people to take care of and protect their health. For example, there are still many people across all walks of life who believe that drinking a chilled beverage can give you a cold, that garlic prevents a cold or that going outside with wet hair gets you sick. Perhaps the hardest of these beliefs to overcome is the almost ubiquitous one that I hear often when we do community health seminars. This is, “I feel fine, so why worry about anything? If I get sick, I will go to the doctor, and he/she will fix it” (as if we were cars in need of repair).
From these experiences, I learned what would become the foundation of pH Labs. Namely, that the better educated we are about our bodies and what they need — from nutrition to exercise to healthy lifestyle choices — to stay healthy, the happier and longer lives we probably will have.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
That is an easy one — “The glass is always half full.” This has helped me to always see the positive in a situation, see how I can learn and grow from it, and have a happier and fuller life. I know that this may sound somewhat pollyannaish, but my experience has proven to me without a doubt that our perspective of any given situation determines, to a large extent, how it impacts us and how we will move through it. To give you some examples from my life:
- When my first professional position as an attorney evaporated, I could have seen that as a major setback but instead saw it as an opportunity and founded my own firm
- When I lost one of my partners, and dear friend, to a rare cancer, I worked with his family to create a nonprofit to do research for possible treatments and cures for it
- When I lost friends and family to a variety of chronic diseases, I realized that if they had known how to avoid them in the first place, they probably would still be alive, and I founded pH Labs
Many of the lessons I have learned along the way have been quite painful and difficult, but I always worked hard to see and find something positive in them. And to this day, I have always been able to. They have also taught me, especially in difficult times, that we always can find something to be grateful for.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
One great thing about my work is that it is far more diverse and varied than I had thought it would be. There also are always new challenges, both personal and professional. These ensure that I am always learning and growing — and that I am never bored. I am grateful that this has never happened with me, and I work in an area that whenever I ask myself “what’s next?” there always is something new to tackle. For example, if someone had told me that during my career, I would have founded two nonprofits, helped kids in Jamaica learn life skills through golf and become the Honorary Consul of Jamaica in Los Angeles, I never would have believed them. I really can’t wait to see what I do next!
But looking ahead, I do have several new projects that I’ve started and that are doing quite well (if I say so myself) along with a few on the drawing board. These include:
- A follow-up and update to my first book, Minerals: The Forgotten Nutrient, Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy
- Working with industry, community, and professional organizations to bring pH Labs’ various testing services and health information seminars to more people, especially those whose health care needs have been traditionally underserved
But no matter which projects I develop in the future, they all will have in common a commitment to helping people get and stay their healthiest. So, stay tuned!
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field?
I have spent my entire professional career and adult life working to improve healthcare in the United States. I can proudly say that the law firm I founded has played, and continues to play, a key role in supporting hospitals as well as patients. We help hospitals continue with their mission of protecting the health of their patients and communities.
As a healthcare attorney, I am also required to educate myself about the medical history of various patients in order to educate the court and juries as well as cross examine various health care experts. As part of this work, I have reviewed more than 50,000 medical records during the last 30 years. This experience has taught me that the better educated people are about how to proactively protect their health, the more benefits of a healthy life they will enjoy. I always say that an educated patient is a healthier patient.
My work in the nonprofit healthcare world has also helped me become an authority in health issues and especially in how we can proactively take care of our health to reduce the likelihood of getting sick in the first place. My national nonprofit, pH Labs (www.phlabs.org), utilizes credible science-based research to give people the information and tools they need to get and stay their healthiest.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about achieving a healthy body weight. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define a “Healthy Body Weight”?
It’s important to keep in mind that “healthy body weight” is a very individual thing so it is impossible to say, for example, that any given person should weigh a certain weight. Related to this is the tendency for people to literally obsess over their BMI or body mass index, which also is not a good indication of “healthy weight”.
What began in Belgium in the 1800s as an equation to represent the standard human build became the health litmus test for individuals rather than groups, which resulted in everyone being measured the same way. People of different ethnicities distribute fat differently; a South Asian woman with a normal BMI might have a dangerously high level of visceral fat (wrapped around the abdominal organs), increasing her risk for heart disease. Without measuring her waist circumference, her doctor might end her physical with “you’re fine, see you in a year.”
So, rather than using “weight,” at pH Labs we recommend that our clients focus more on body composition — fat, intracellular and extracellular water, and muscle mass — to help them know whether they need to build muscle, lose fat or both. The best thing a person can do for their health is get this type of body composition analysis. In addition to how much someone weighs, it’s what that weight is composed of that is important.
How can an individual learn what is a healthy body weight for them? How can we discern what is “too overweight” or what is “too underweight”?
The first thing someone needs to understand is that appearances are incredibly deceiving when it comes to a heathy body weight. Never assume that a thin person is a healthy person, or a larger person is an unhealthy person. In fact, many slender people may be, in fact, “skinny fat,” which means they may be carrying too much fat on their body and not enough muscle. As with knowing your ideal body composition, work with a competent health practitioner who knows your body and your specific history to know how much you should weigh. Whatever you do, please don’t Google “how much should I weigh”. You are unique and your ideal healthy weight is too.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Can you please share a few reasons why being over your healthy body weight, or under your healthy body weight, can be harmful to your health?
Being over your ideal healthy weight has long been associated with increasing your risk for developing a variety of serious health issues. These include hypertension, diabetes, coronary heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NFLD), depression, high levels of “bad” cholesterol and low levels of “good” cholesterol, stroke, sleep apnea, gallbladder disease, and cancer.
On the other hand, being below your ideal weight carries its own health risks. These include nutritional deficiencies and imbalances, constant fatigue, fertility issues, osteoporosis, anemia, irregular menstrual cycles, premature births, and reduced immune function.
So, it is very clear, and proven, that we should work to maintain a weight and body composition that is in what I and others like to refer to as the “Goldilocks Zone” — not too high, not too low.
In contrast, can you help articulate a few examples of how a person who achieves and maintains a healthy body weight will feel better and perform better in many areas of life?
The good news is that in addition to reducing your risk for disease, maintaining your personal ideal weight and body composition has its own benefits. These include better circulation, more energy, enhanced self-esteem, decreased risk for breast cancer, more motivation to stick with an exercise program, better sleep, enhanced longevity, and reduced back and joint tension.
Ok, fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need to Do to Achieve a Healthy Body Weight and Keep It Permanently?”. If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
Since I see maintaining a healthy weight as critical to someone being able to achieve optimal health, if someone is doing all they can to be healthy, then they will have and will be maintaining a healthy weight and vice versa. To that end, there are several things that I personally follow and that I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to be their healthiest best (including having a healthy weight). These are:
- Take the time to educate yourself about how your body works so that you can take the necessary steps to stay healthy. This is important since no two people are alike. This includes ongoing and periodic nutrition testing to see what nutrients your body may have too little or too much of. It is important to be nutritionally balanced. We eat to live, and our bodies need to get the right balance of nutrients from the foods we eat in order to operate optimally. If we do not have the right balance of nutrients, it will be difficult to stay healthy and maintain a healthy weight. Based on the results of your test, your doctor or other competent healthcare practitioner can make dietary and other recommendations such as physical activity to increase your chances of achieving a healthy body weight.
- Focus less on body weight and more on your body fat. Excess body fat creates various imbalances which may reduce your chances of remaining healthy. Generally, women need at least 12 percent body fat for normal physiological functioning. Men need around 3 percent. Any body fat above those amounts is considered “nonessential fat.” In terms of acceptable ranges for good health, women should shoot for 20–32 percent, and men 10–22 percent. Believe it or not, body fat is usually a better predictor of overall health than the more well-known BMI measurement.
- Stay hydrated with “good” water. It turns out that not all waters are created equal and that water that is more alkaline (versus acidic) may have a lot of health benefits, especially as we get older. This water has a higher mineral content than plain water. These minerals may include magnesium and calcium which may be good for our health.
- Never count calories and make every effort to avoid many processed foods and include fruits, nuts, and vegetables in your diet if you can. I usually avoid large meals and eat about 5 to 6 times daily. I try to avoid sodas and drink enough water to avoid thirst. I also never use the word “diet” in my vocabulary since that suggests a temporary fix — something that someone goes on and then goes off. Instead, make this a lifestyle and focus on including a wide variety of appropriate fruits and vegetables in every meal. You get bonus points if you prepare the meals at home to give you more control over portions and ingredients.
- Empower yourself with credible information so you can make intelligent and informed decisions about your health. I don’t think it is solely up to a doctor to educate us about our health. Most doctors are trained to treat emergencies and acute health conditions. It is up to us to identify what it takes to maintain a healthy lifestyle so that we can recover quickly from treatment our doctors recommend or reduce the likelihood of diseases. And almost all doctors agree that the better educated a patient is, the better partner they are in making decisions. This helps increase the probability of better treatment outcomes.
The emphasis of this series is how to maintain an ideal weight for the long term, and how to avoid yo-yo dieting. Specifically, how does a person who loses weight maintain that permanently and sustainably?
When people come to pH Labs asking about how to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, this is probably their number one question — “how do I avoid the yo-yo effect?” Here are the suggestions we give them:
#1: Get help changing behavior
Researchers have found that a combination of behavior-change classes and meal replacements (like carefully crafted weight loss shakes) was successful in helping people keep the weight off for a couple of years.
While “behavior-change classes” might not be something you can just look up on Yelp! most people can use their health insurance benefits to enlist a psychologist to help with binge eating or stress eating. That way, the help is more tailored.
#2: Get up and get moving
Scientists looking at gastric bypass surgery found that the most successful “losers” were those who didn’t sit very much and those who engaged in moderate to high physical activity. That shouldn’t be a surprise since sitting is a huge risk factor for early death, heart disease, and weight gain! They also faithfully followed the “five servings of veggies and fruit a day” mantra. You can squeeze these in by putting a lot of different kinds of produce in a large salad for lunch.
#3: Build muscle
The loss of muscle mass (from being sedentary, aging or dieting) is seen as one of the main culprits for many modern health issues, from diabetes to regaining that weight. The remedy is simple — strength training (things like weightlifting and push-ups). I am not saying you need to hit the gym and train for a bodybuilding competition. You just need to do any exercise that that causes the muscles to contract against an external resistance with the expectation of increases in strength, tone, mass and/or endurance. This is especially important as we age since older adults can develop a condition called sarcopenia that causes muscle loss. The good news is that 20 minutes of strength exercise two times a week is all you need.
What are a few of the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to lose weight? What errors cause people to just snap back to their old unhealthy selves? What can they do to avoid those mistakes?
Number one is viewing healthy eating as “I am going on a diet” since this implies you can and will go off it. The other is having the wrong reasons for taking on healthy eating. For example, if you say, “I want to look good in my bathing suit when I go on vacation,” your motivation for healthy eating will most likely evaporate the minute you step on the beach.
The second, and equally important, is not being prepared to start adopting a healthier way of eating and weight/body composition management. Many people decide they want to embark on this life-long journey without knowing much about their bodies, what nutrients they need, and in which amounts, which foods have them, and how to shop for and prepare these foods. They also may make this decision on a whim.
The third would have to be setting unrealistic expectations both in terms of results and how long it will take to achieve them. This can set you up for frustration and disappointment, which can easily result in your saying, “this is too hard, forget it.” It is important to set yourself up for success and not for failure. Work with a competent health practitioner to determine your ideal weight and body composition and then put together a realistic — and doable — plan for achieving these goals.
How do we take all this information and integrate it into our actual lives? The truth is that we all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
This is the famous “knowing doing gap” that all of us have experienced in our work and in our personal lives. As the saying goes, it’s one thing to know how to do something and it’s quite the other to do it. What we are really talking about here is procrastination, so the same tricks what we can use, for example, to work on our taxes when we would rather avoid that can also apply to using our knowledge of healthy eating and putting it in practice.
Some things that you may want to try if you are finding it hard to keep moving forward with your healthy eating are:
- Break it down into smaller pieces. Trying to change years of unhealthy eating habits all at once can be overwhelming, even for the most dedicated person. My advice is to break it down into smaller, interim goals and actions and then build on them. For example, you may say that starting next week you are not going to eat sweets, or you are going to stop using sugar in your morning coffee. Once you are comfortable with this, then decide to increase your vegetable and decrease your bread intake. Then start drinking more water and less soda. Before you know it, you will be eating healthier, and your weight and body composition will reflect this.
- Think about why you are considering abandoning healthier food choices and then devise a plan of action. Knowing why we are making any given decision is a great way to understand our motivations and then come up with ways to overcome the urge to go against our own plans. For example, if you know you like to stress eat, come up with alternatives such as meditation or walking and do that instead of reaching for the cupcake.
- Have a healthy-eating buddy! Enlist a friend or family member to be your health-eating buddy. In addition to giving each other encouragement and reinforcement, you can also, as the saying goes, “keep each other honest.”
On the flip side, how can we prevent these ideas from just being trapped in a rarified, theoretical ideal that never gets put into practice? What specific habits can we develop to take these intellectual ideas and integrate them into our normal routine?
The key is that eating healthily is not about being on a “diet.” It’s about leading a healthy lifestyle, and a major part of this involves eating healthy food.
I know it can be overwhelming to figure out what to eat and how much. But take comfort in knowing even small changes can make a big difference. Try to do something different and healthier every day, and in just a few months you may realize you are leading a better lifestyle.
Here are some tips on how you can be proactive about maintaining a healthy diet.
- Educate yourself about the nutrients present in your food. Do you know the vitamin and mineral content of the foods you buy? Do you know how much of each nutrient you need? Before you go grocery shopping, check out the USDA National Nutrient Database. It’s very easy to use and will tell you what is in one cup of a particular food item.
- Don’t punish yourself. Eating healthy should never feel like a punishment. It’s okay if you do not like salad. Blend greens, like spinach and kale, in your morning smoothie. You will still get the benefits of eating a salad without eating a salad
- Challenge yourself. If you are a heavy red meat eater, try giving up red meat for a week. You may discover you don’t even miss it, and you prefer other proteins like fish.
- Make it fun. Host healthy dinner parties or involve your kids when you cook. If you make the people you love a part of your healthy lifestyle, it may keep you motivated to maintain healthy eating habits over a longer period, hopefully for life!
- Know what you need. You may already be a super healthy eater, but this does not mean you do not have any vitamin or mineral deficiencies. Get nutritional testing so you can fine-tune your diet and make it specifically tailored to your body’s needs. You may even discover you are getting too much of a good thing!
- Explore. I’m an avid gardener, and this summer I took the initiative to plant new foods. By doing this, I incorporated new healthy foods into my diet, like loquats. I discovered dandelion greens are super healthy and something I can easily throw into a smoothie or salad. By exploring, I never get bored.
- Find alternatives. The occasional treat of your favorite junk food is not something you should deny yourself. You must live a little! But with a little effort, you may be able to find healthier alternatives to some of your favorite junk foods. For example, maybe you crave the occasional bag of candy. The next time you have this craving, have a handful of figs. They may satisfy your sweet tooth, and they are packed with many essential vitamins and minerals. The fiber in figs will also help keep you full.
- Track it. We are always on our phones — texting, emailing, scheduling appointments and taking photos. So why not do something for your health while using your mobile device? You may also discover you are consuming a lot of unnecessary calories, for example maybe at Happy Hour or with your morning coffee.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Given how important health education is to keeping our society as healthy as possible, I would start a movement for universal health education instead of universal healthcare. Even if the latter were to come in to being (which is problematic to say the least), universal healthcare without universal “cradle to grave” health education will never achieve the goal of significantly reducing costs or improving healthcare in this country.
To better understand why universal health education is so important, think about a car. When we buy a new car — whether fresh off the production line or used — various regulations mandate that we are given an owner’s manual. As responsible consumers, we usually read the manual that comes with our new car. This is because we know that driving our cars without appropriate instructions about how to take care of them results in us having to pay more money to repair or replace the car.
Unfortunately, we do not get an “owner’s manual” when we’re born. So, most of us rely on our parents (who themselves may not be health educated), personal doctors (whose primary role is usually treating disease — not education), celebrity doctors on television, or Dr. Google to learn as much as we can.
Credible, well-researched, practical, and easy-to-understand health education that starts in grammar school and continues through adult life would ensure that we have at least as much information about taking care of our health as we do our cars.
In addition to the benefits of reducing the incidence of disease, consumer health education also offers significant economic benefits. It also could provide an almost immediate and very tangible benefit in improving nutrition in this country.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)
There are three. They are Melinda French Gates, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey because of their collective commitment to improving healthcare and education. In the case of the Gates’, the foundation they founded believes that the “path out of poverty begins when the next generation can access quality healthcare and a great education.” And for Ms. Winfrey, her foundation’s mission is to “educate .. and empower” women and children with a specific focus on youth education. These three individuals and their respective foundations reflect my personal philosophy of how education is the path to getting and staying healthy as individuals, to having healthier communities — especially disadvantaged communities which suffer a disproportionate burden of illness and tend to have higher morbidity and mortality rates than more affluent groups — and to realizing our full potential as human beings. This is the same philosophy that underpins all the organizations I have founded, from the national nonprofit health education organization Proactive Health Labs (www.phlabs.org) to the law firm of Stephenson, Acquisto & Colman (www.sacfirm.com) which is committed to protecting the financial viability of health care providers. I am confident that should we have the chance to meet for breakfast or lunch, that we would be sure to come up with some powerful new ideas for achieving our collective goals.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I would first invite them to visit our website, www.phlabs.org, where they can find a wealth of information on how to get and stay healthy. They can also follow pH Labs on Facebook at Proactive Health Labs; YouTube at Proactive Health Labs; Instagram at _phlabs; Twitter at @_pHLabs; or Pinterest at proactivelabs.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.