Ben Grynol: Metabolic health oscillates over time, and your phase of life and lifestyle choices—things like food, sleep, exercise, stress levels—impact our metabolic health. Kelly Leveque, a great friend of Levels and one of our advisors, has very much had this lens on monitoring things like blood sugar through the use of a CGM. She uses CGMs with her clients in her holistic nutritionist practice. She’s also a celebrity health coach, author of two bestselling books, Body Love and Body Love Every Day, and even a mom of two. She has a great perspective on meals for different phases of life.
Kelly’s Journey to Health and Nutrition
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: Kelly, so excited to have you on today.
Kelly Leveque: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be back.
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: You did such an amazing podcast on the last episode, focusing on a whole bunch of things, including children and their metabolic health needs. This time I’d love to hear more about your personal journey into health, wellness, and food, and all the work that you do.
Kelly Leveque: I love telling this story. I feel like I haven’t told it in a long time, because I’ve been in the industry for a long time. Now I’m talking a lot about what’s going on in my life, like being a mom and having two young kids. But, in the beginning, I started my business as a side hustle. I worked in cancer and genetics for about eight years, post-college. I thought I was too old to change careers, and that I was already too established in my corporate career. It was not the time for me to leave.
But I was so passionate about blood sugar and about understanding how each of us interacts and reacts to food, that I ultimately decided to go back to school, at nights, and got a degree as a clinical nutritionist. I was able to parlay a career where I was looking at the latest research in cancer, genetics, and the feeding pathways of tumors, to then working with clients one-on-one. The side hustle actually lasted for three years.
I went back to school and started my business in 2012, and took it full-time in 2015. I always joke that I jumped off a curb instead of a cliff. I eventually built up my client roster. Every single call involved going into their home, meeting them on set, seeing them in their workplace, in a conference room, at a coffee shop—you name it—but really learning about their life.
I always started my sessions the same way: “I want to be you. Put me in your body. What does it look like to live your life, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed? Do you set an alarm? Are you hungry? Are you tired? Are you energetic? Do you rely on caffeine? Are you pooping? Tell me everything.” I worked as a consultant, really, looking at the low hanging fruit. Where did I see issues?
If we rewind back to when I was going to be a senior at USC, I called my dad in tears and said, “Dad, I made a huge mistake. I shouldn’t be in business and finance. I should be in the health field. I should be pre-med.”
I had just finished up this class, “Nature of Human Health and Disease,” where I wrote a thesis on blood sugar and Type 2 diabetes. I thought, “That’s the best grade I ever got in class.” I didn’t even have to think about it. It was like I had absorbed the information. I thought it was so applicable to everyday life.
I graduated from undergrad in 2005. Ten years later, I took the business full-time. I would sit down with these clients, and there were all these opportunities to see, “Well, of course you’re having these cravings,” or, “Of course you’re not feeling your best because you’re crashing, and your blood sugar is not stable,” and, “You’re making these choices based on the calorie load or what was considered “healthy,” like low-fat foods. But really, none of those things are making you vibrant. They aren’t keeping you energized.”
I’d look at someone’s life and say, “Okay, we’re not going to make big changes, but how can we make a few changes to see some more balance in your life? How can we add to your plate, add to your day? Instead of being in this restrictive place, how can we really focus on what’s going to make you feel your best and help you hit your goals without trying so hard?”
Little by little, I’d get referrals. And then I finally had enough clients to say, “Take it full-time.” When I did, it was scary. I went from a 401k, a company car, not needing to put anything on a credit card, to all of a sudden thinking, “Now I’m seeing clients. I’m being paid hourly. I’m living my passion, but it’s a little bit scary.” I’m not really well in the financial space at this point. I had taken my job full-time, but there was a little financial insecurity there. I thought, “Instead of working one-to-one, how can I work one-to-many?”
I ultimately decided that I would try to write a book. I cold emailed a bunch of agents. I received a few emails back, jumped on an airplane, flew to New York, met a few people in person. And, I like to say the rest is history, but I was just so passionate about teaching people the science of blood sugar and making it easy and understandable. That was 2016, a long time ago. But I’m so excited that, thanks to companies like Levels, blood sugar is something people are finally talking about.
Everything, from energy, to the way we digest our food, to our hunger hormones, to our skin health, to our joint health, our sleep—you name it—is impacted by blood sugar. We can’t just say, “calories in, calories out.” We cannot just champion “this lifestyle diet” or “that lifestyle diet.” We know from your data and CGM data in general that balancing our blood sugar is the foundation of health, and key for preventing chronic lifestyle diseases and diseases that people don’t even associate with blood sugar, like polycystic ovarian syndrome. Your fertility is affected by blood sugar, too. I mean, everything is.
I’m stoked that it’s in full view right now, because we’re now talking about real healthspan. We are now talking about being functional and being able to have energy and a brain that is fully functioning later in life. I’m so excited about it. My journey began before it became flashy, but I’m still pounding my little drum over here. I’m excited that it is where it is today, because if more people can access it, the better we’ll all be.
Simplifying the Science of Blood Sugar with the Fab Four
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: Thank you for being such a pioneer and contributor in this space, and for sharing your story around making career changes like that, because it’s really inspiring. Oftentimes, people, like you said, shy away from it. In fact, not only did it lead you to be in this amazing, successful place, but in some ways, I think your original path reconnected with the one you’re on now, which often happens. People don’t realize that’s the case. Every piece ends up having its place. It’s really cool to hear about how everything has combined for you so far. I’m definitely excited to see all the places that you go in the next two years.
I know you have popularized your approach, the Fab Four, among other principles. Would you mind elaborating on that?
Kelly Leveque: When I first started seeing clients and started talking about glucose and what broke down the glucose and how insulin worked and that it was released from your pancreas to help your body uptake glucose from your bloodstream into your cells, their eyes would glaze over. And said, “What, Kelly? I just want to get ready for my wedding, and I want to feel my best. I don’t want to count. I don’t want points. I don’t want…”
And that’s the hard part. I wanted to simplify the science of blood sugar balance. I wanted to help people understand what they needed to put on their plate, what they needed to check for, to know that their body would do the hard work of balancing blood sugar, and that by eating these four things, they could slow down the digestion of their meal and elongate their blood sugar curve.
With CGMs, people are excited: “I’m going to try and flatline my blood sugar.” Little oscillations in our blood sugar are absolutely normal. But what we don’t want are those really high spikes and hard crashes. Those 90 minutes up and 90 minutes down, of a blood sugar spike and crash, can really deplete your energy.
You may aim to eat balanced meals, or opt for protein-based snacks, or go for a run after work, but if you are up and down on that blood sugar roller coaster in front of your computer, and every three hours you’re up and down and up and down, by the time you get off work, you’re not going to want to do anything. You’re going to want to order pizza. You’re going to want to Netflix and chill. You’re going to really be depleted, energetically speaking, in your ability to see your friends and show up for your family. I wanted to simplify it, and the way I did that was with the Fab Four.
The Fab Four is protein, fat, fiber, and leafy greens or colorful vegetables. This helps simplify the science of blood sugar. Protein breaks down into amino acids. It has little to no effect on blood sugar balance. Fat breaks down into fatty acids, or has zero effect on blood sugar.
Fiber and leafy greens are plant-based foods that have wrapped up the sugar and starch in a fiber-based cell so much that you have to not only chew through that food, but digest through that food with enzymes and hydrochloric acid. And your microbes ferment those foods. Finally, those sugars and starches are released, passed through the epithelial lining, and create a little bit of a spike.
But when we pair those with some protein and fat, we’ve actually slowed down the digestion. We have calmed our hunger hormones, and we’ve allowed for that elongation to happen. For the fiber and greens piece, that might be as simple as someone saying, “I’m going to add some chia seeds to a pancake mix,” or, “I am going to pair my toast with some avocado and egg.” The minute we talk about adding protein and fat to anything, it’s going to slow down digestion, and regulate our hunger hormones.
But the fiber and greens piece—that’s where we are feeding the microbes living in our intestines. That’s our microbiome. They do this amazing job of fermenting carbohydrates, of making all these byproducts like short-chain fatty acids, of synthesizing vitamins, of ensuring that we don’t have leaky gut and that we have tight junctures in our gut lining. They’re all strategically placed in the Fab Four, with protein and fat being two things that don’t break down to blood sugar, and fiber and greens being things that are slow to break down to blood sugar.
You can look at the other things on your plate, whether that’s deciding to have a glass of wine, or a dessert, or add a starch. Okay, great. But we’re not going to have those by themselves. And we’re going to work hard to ensure that they’re less processed and lower in sugar.
The key was when I started telling my clients, “I don’t want you to think about the ‘do not eat list.’ I don’t want you to think about fear mongering things, the things that are going to make you sick, kill you, give you disease. I want you to go in your kitchen, whether it’s at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack, and I want you to think, ‘Look at my plate. Do I have a little bit of protein, a healthy fat—avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil, coconut product? Do I have some fiber and greens?’”
I know maybe you get up from your office desk and think, “I have some chicken and some…”
Yesterday, I had chicken in Primal Kitchen Queso, which is a cashew queso thing in my fridge. I heated up the chicken. I was dipping it in the queso and thought, “Ugh.” I didn’t even want to open my fridge and pull out the veggies. But I thought, “Oh, I’m doing it. I just want to add a little bit of weight. I want to add a little bit of produce. I want to add a little bit of water.” I just grabbed the cucumber, chopped it up. I didn’t even feel like eating it, but I reminded myself of all the wonderful things it’s doing for me: providing enzymes, providing water, providing weight, stretching my stomach, slowing down the release of sugars into my bloodstream, making me feel really full, providing soluble and insoluble fibers.
When we focus on the positive, we become motivated to fill our plate with the things that balance our blood sugar. That’s what I’ve been so excited about from the very beginning. How do I get people excited? Even when they don’t feel like something, to think, “This is doing so much good in my body, and I deserve to be nourished.” How do I get people to feel that way?
Food as Fuel
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: It’s so amazing. I think for many people, being on a cycle of cravings and hunger is kind of just normal life. When people start to make these changes, what is the impact on that cycling?
Kelly Leveque: It’s that elongation of the blood sugar curve. One of the biggest problems I see with most of the women I work with is that they either get really excited about not eating breakfast and trying to fast, or they’re grabbing for something fast because they’re a busy working mom or they are running to the office or they jump into email.
Then all of a sudden, they think, “Oh, I’m hungry, I’ll grab something.” And they’re grabbing for something fast. It may be pre-packaged oatmeal or a bar, or maybe they just grab a piece of fruit, or they’re following some Instagrammer who only has an oat milk, plantain, and a banana. When there’s misinformation, or when they’re just grabbing for something fast and sweet, it doesn’t matter if it’s just a piece of fruit, your body is breaking down that carbohydrate source into glucose.
It becomes this spike in blood sugar, where blood sugar goes up for 90 minutes. Your body’s releasing all this insulin to take care of it, to pick it up and put it away in your cells, to store it in your liver and muscles. Your blood sugar begins to crash at the 90-minute mark. By the three-hour mark, you’re irritable. You have low blood sugar. You can’t focus, and you crave more sugar. What do we do? We go back to the kitchen thinking, “What can I have?” And you reach for that bar. Or if you had the bar for breakfast, you reach for the apple. Maybe you’re in a caloric deficit at that time, or maybe you’re just trying to have small meals, but the problem is, it all backfires in the back end.
With these small meals and that up-and-down roller coaster, by the time lunch comes around, you’re even hungrier. You’re craving things even more, and you’re using all this willpower to say, “Well, I’m just going to have a salad with some salmon on top.” And then you have a few bites, but it’s not satisfying to you. You pop in the fridge or the pantry and look for the crackers or the chocolate, or you run yourself to your office and think, “I’m going to try really hard not to think about food.” But then you’re in a place where you’re unable to focus, and you’re thinking about food all day long.
I always tell my clients, “If I could free you from the shackles and give you food freedom and tell you it is okay. And in fact, it’s not just okay—I want to force you. I’m not permitting you, I’m asking you. I’m begging you, please feed yourself, and start your day and break your fast with a protein-rich meal.” I don’t care if you’re vegan, vegetarian, carnivore, paleo. Preferably, there’s some protein and vegetables on your plate. But how can we get you to a place where that first meal of the day is so satisfying and satiating, that your blood sugar curve is elongated and you are not thinking about food for four to six hours. How do we get there?”
There are excuses like, “Well, I didn’t meal prep,” or “I didn’t meal plan,” and, “That’s really hard,” or “I’m worried I’m going to gain weight,” or “I’m in a bulk. I’m already not where I want to be.”
The Fab Four smoothie has always been a fallback for me, because smoothies feel, interestingly enough, healthy to people. Using the Fab Four smoothie protocol, I have people fill their blender with a clean protein powder of their choice, a healthy fat like a handful of walnuts, a tablespoon of almond butter, a little avocado—pick a fat for you—some fiber and greens, like chia or flax seeds, some spinach, and maybe some blueberries—add the color, add the produce.
I want them to really know what it feels like to have 20 grams of protein, to break their fast with a significant amount of bioavailable protein, and then to literally not think about food until one or two o’clock in the afternoon, and get there and think, “Hmm, what do I feel like?”
To have that meal, when you actually eat it, satisfy you in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you just had Thanksgiving dinner, is the gift I want to give to everyone, because we live in this diet culture where it’s “restrict,” or even a toxic wellness culture and that causes you to think, “If I haven’t had my fast and then my coffee with lion’s mane and then lightened my eyes and then wrote in my journal and then had this perfect…”
Perfect is like the antithesis of good. We aren’t going to get anywhere in that mindset, so I simplify it for my clients. Start small. Start with the first meal of the day, and then just see how that impacts the rest of your day.
I know, from a decade of working with clients, that blood sugar balance is the key to food freedom. The CGMs my clients are now using from Levels is just proving that to them. They’re being reminded over and over again that, “Oh, I don’t have to fast. I don’t have to restrict. But when I focus on balance, when I focus on that first meal of the day, I naturally eat less. I naturally have less cravings.”
They don’t have the cravings because they don’t have the crash. And they just feel better. It’s easier and you’re more energized. They feel like going for that run with their friend after work. Or they feel like driving and seeing a family member or running to the park with their kids, because they’re not exhausted from the food choices they’re making.
Mindset, Metrics, and Momentum
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: Thank you so much for giving voice to both the importance of nourishing our bodies with food and eating healthy food, and also to how challenging diet culture is. Like you said, diet culture is really pervasive and is normalized from a very young age. When a client starts with you after having been entrenched in diet culture, which, like I said, I think is the default at this point, what are some of the first things that you do to change that mindset and recreate a new neural pathway for them to think about how they’re approaching food in their body?
Kelly Leveque: Some of the psychology research that’s coming out is really impactful for me as a health coach and as a nutritionist with my clients. There was a study involving protein shakes, where two groups were separated. One group was given a protein shake and told that it was really nutrient-dense and that it was going to make them healthy, promote vitality and health in their body, and help them hit their goals. The other group was given a shake and told the caloric load. It had an amazing impact on the different groups, based on their belief system. The people who thought it was more nourishing had less weight gain than the people who thought it was a calorically dense, glutinous shake.
I always come to my clients and say, “Your mindset matters. If you believe that you can’t lose weight, that you’re unhealthy, that you are never going to be strong enough to get through a Soul Cycle class, that you could never do five push ups or burpees, or that you’re chronically broken, you have to know that your beliefs have weight, and that they have an impact on not only your metabolic health, but your mental and cellular health. Your beliefs are showing up in your body whether you believe it or not. Science is showing us that.” That’s always really eye opening to my clients.
It’s also important to really take it one bite at a time. It’s not planning that can be a problem for people, but it truly is how you show up for yourself. When you look at your past, like prior behaviors, we think it’s a prediction of future behaviors. Everyone believes that. If they’ve gone on a diet and failed, gone on a diet and failed, gone on a diet and failed, they assume, whether they’re willing to admit it to me or not, that they’re going to start working with me and they’ll probably fail. To break that behavior, they need to show up for themselves and show themselves that they can commit to something and follow through with something.
I think where diet culture gets it wrong is that every diet expects you to be perfect, to follow this “eat and do not eat” list. There’s no room for error. There’s no room for flexibility. There’s no white structure. It is “black or white, good or bad.” The problem with that is it’s not just one decision you’re making a day. When it comes to food and activity, this diet is expecting you to change every decision in your entire day.
When I work with a client, I never do that. I’m not going to say, “We’re changing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We’re changing your sleep. By the way, you can’t have that chocolate you have at night, and you should really ditch your Ozark addiction. And you probably shouldn’t see your friends on the weekends because you’re out too late and it’s messing with your sleep. In fact, science tells us that your sleep is actually messed up for three days after a bad night’s sleep.” The internet is already telling them that. They already know that. We are going to take it one step at a time. We’re going to get really freaking good at following through on something. And then we’re going to prove to ourselves, “Wow. I actually did that.”
When you look at people who start training for marathons, half-marathons, triathlons, they have confidence on a whole new level, because they showed up for themselves.
In school, we would take a class, study for the final, pass: “Woohoo. We completed something.” When you put yourself out into the working world as an adult, unsupervised human, it’s the wild, wild west. How do you show up for yourself and follow through with something to build these confidence bricks in your life?
When I work with a client, I just start with breakfast. I say, “When do you want to break the fast? I’m not telling you 7:00 AM or 11:00 AM. I’m asking you to tell me, in your life. Let’s look at the past week. Let’s look at the past few months. Let’s look at the past few years. When were you showing up for yourself the best? When were you the most energetic? Are you someone who needs to eat at 7:00 AM, or are you someone who needs to eat at 11:00 AM? How do make sure that meal is blood sugar-balancing and energetically supportive of you for the rest of the day?”
When we’ve gotten really good at that for two to three weeks, we evaluate: “How did that show up in the rest of the decisions I made throughout the day? Was it hard? Was it easy? How did I feel about myself?”
Most of the time, they come back really confident about the fact that I didn’t give them a laundry list of things to do. But I gave them one and they got really good at it. They showed up for themselves in ways they hadn’t in a long time. Then we really highlight all the ways that, synergistically, it made them and supported them to make better decisions throughout the day. I think that’s the key.
I talk to my clients not about pushing up a hill, but about getting the momentum to reach the tipping point, so we’re rolling. I want you rolling down that hill. I want you collecting other dirt along the way—or snow, if you’re an avalanche—and then I want you rolling quickly saying, “No one can stop me. Nothing can derail me, not even a night with my friends on the weekends, not even an ‘Oopsie, that was a fun brunch with my family.’ How do I keep that ball moving?” It doesn’t start by saying, “I’m going to start this super rigid diet, and I’m going to do everything right,” because that is a recipe for disaster. It’s, “How do I just get the little steps going, to get enough momentum, to where these other little daily life activities don’t derail me?”
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: I love that approach. It really honors not only how important ad powerful the psychology of this is, but also that food, diet, and exercise choices happen within a very complicated emotional, social, and cultural context. It’s not as simple as a diet saying, “Do this and this and this, and then it’s just up to your willpower.” We all know that doesn’t work, and yet that continues to be the primary methodology.
For people who start with a very specific goal—weight loss, for instance, often the fuel of diet culture—but they aren’t seeing weight drop off right away, how do you coach them through redefining success in the way that you’re describing?
Kelly Leveque: I love a CGM for that, because I just use fasting glucose as a way to say, “Okay, here’s what is so beneficial about a CGM.” I can sit down with a client, and we’re gamifying it, where maybe they start with a fasting glucose above 100. I say, “Look, you’re in your thirties, and that number is pretty detrimental long-term. But if we can get it back in the nineties, down to the eighties, over time, all of these body composition goals are at the end of that. Instead of focusing on your weight, how can we refocus on CGM and have the positive momentum to keep going, because you’re seeing that fasting glucose come down, and then eventually see the weight loss?”
The reality is, a lot of people don’t stay on their “plan,” long enough to see body composition changes. They are frustrated and discouraged. They might get on a plan, lose two to four pounds of water weight, hit a plateau, and feel frustrated. But they’ve changed their diet and they’ve started working out more. What are we going to have? We’re going to have muscle growth happening. We’re going to have a lot of body composition changes, but they’re not going to love them at first. You might feel like you are swelling or your jeans are a little bit tighter, especially if you’re doing squats and lunges. You may think, “Why do my legs feel bigger?” This is all part of the process.
I always try to be really forthright with my clients around the changes they may see, especially when someone wants to do everything all at once, which is why I use a CGM or measuring tape with my clients more than the scale. We see changes in measurements. We see changes in fasting glucose. Those two things will end up on the scale. The scale isn’t going to show it first, so it’s the most discouraging metric out there, to start lifting weights or working out and to see the scale go up, or to see it plateau for two to four weeks.
If you haven’t stuck to something for six to eight weeks, you have no idea what your potential is. The CGM and measurements always help me keep clients accountable to those long-term goals, because they see their fasting numbers come down. They see their waist circumference come down. They see their arm circumference come down. And they think, “Why is this scale not showing it?”
We’re doing this amazing job of completely changing your body composition, your brain health, your cellular health, and your mitochondrial health. We have those conversations and then use visuals like, “If you’ve ever purchased a pound of ground beef, you know what a pound of muscle looks like. Now, take a Nerf football. That is the size of a pound of fat.”
When I do measurements on a client, and maybe they’re converting fat to muscle and we’re seeing some change over there, we’re going to see the circumference go down. That can really be a motivating tool for clients, especially weight loss-driven clients.
A lot of times, I ask clients for measurements or jean sizes as goals. We may not hit weight goals, ever. Their weight goal may be what they think their ideal weight is, but they hit their jean size they thought was associated with that weight, way before they hit that weight. And guess what? They’re metabolically healthier. They’re stronger. They’re more energetic. They have these amazing lean muscles that suck up glucose, protect their brain, protect their body, and protect their whole cardiovascular system.
Muscles are the most amazing thing for allowing you to live life. If you have a weekend where you have a little fun with your friends and there’s more processed carbohydrates, or if you aren’t in the sober curious camp and you’re imbibing a little bit, those muscles protect you. Let’s put them on. Let’s allow them to suck up the glucose. Let’s allow them to be our metabolism and really be anti-aging in our body, versus focusing on the scale.
That is crucial for me. Many of the times, in the first month or two when I’m working with clients, they don’t get to look at the scale. They face backwards. I have the number. It’s in their file. Every couple of weeks I might say, “You’re down two pounds,” if I see the weight change. But I’m always aggregating measurements loss, because it’s the psychology of being, “I’m doing something positive, and I’m seeing results.” We all have to see results, and we want to see results. CGMs are so immediate. Measurements are a little bit slower. The scale is always last.
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: It’s such an amazing framework that you’re following. I’m so inspired to hear that you’re doing this, because it is extremely refreshing, and it makes sense. I think almost all people have some ideal number in their head, when they will have achieved “optimal health.”
You’re highlighting that, oftentimes, that number isn’t really right. In general, it’s almost never based on data. It’s some number that was created for some reason for that person. Maybe it is data-driven, but I agree, focusing on other metrics and on being powerful, strong, and protected in your own body is so inspiring.
Are there other assumptions or expectations your clients start with that are not really aligned with health goals?
Kelly Leveque: There’s an attainment culture, where we just want to attain perfection. A lot of times, when I sit down with clients, I’ll ask them about their day, because I want to know what it’s like to live in their body. I think nine times out of ten, they think, “Do I want a good day or a bad day?” I say, “What?” That is diet culture wrapped up in their brain of what is good and what is bad, what is evil and what is angelic.
The problem there is that you’re labeling. At what point in the day have you decided it’s bad enough that it’s a bad day? That, unfortunately, causes binge behaviors and shame and guilt. Clients need to have this confidence to get momentum, to feel unbreakable, to feel strong, to feel like they can attain whatever it is they want.
But unfortunately, when it comes to food and health and lifestyle goals, someone might get up, pour themselves a cup of coffee and splash a creamer in. They don’t think it is ideal, but it was in their fridge and they really wanted it, and it’s a non-dairy vanilla creamer. But someone told them that was toxic for them, and they might decide right there, at seven in the morning, that it’s a bad day and they already screwed up, and they can’t wait for tomorrow.
That type of mental shame game is breaking them down from the minute they wake up and affecting every other choice for the rest of the day. They’ve either decided. They’re written the day off: “I’ll start tomorrow. Might as well just drive through Starbucks on my way to work and get X, Y and Z. I already had the creamer. Forget my coffee. Forget the workout. I’m already planning to order pizza for my family.” This is black-and-white thinking.
On top of coaching my clients and supporting them to create momentum, I also need to break down food rules. Who decided something was good or bad? Did you decide it was bad? If you decided it was good, what decision would you make next? Would you have a smoothie? Would you go for that workout? Would you pack a lunch?
How we feel about our decisions goes back to psychology. Do we think we’re innately good or innately bad? When someone says they’re having a “good day” or a “bad day,” I say there’s no such thing. It’s a day, and it’s the decisions we make. What if you could take that entire day and break it down by decision?
Just doing that allows people the freedom to say, “Okay, well, maybe that coffee creamer wasn’t ideal, but you know what? I’m still going to show up for myself at lunch. I’m still going to get that workout in. I’m not going to write it off.”
This goes back to diet culture, perfection culture, attainment, getting everything right. It’s beautiful that the internet exists. It’s amazing that Instagram says, “Hey, guys, here’s a healthy recipe.” But it has become omnipresent, with reels of, “You have this wrong with you, and that wrong with you, and this wrong with you and that wrong with you. This is bad because of all these ingredients,” or whatever the thing may be. We’re inundated with reasons to feel shameful and guilty about the decisions we’re making. That is not promoting health. That is promoting guilt. That is promoting shame.
I always think, “Where’s the silver lining? Coffee with the creamer? Silver lining: you didn’t get the frappuccino at Starbucks. Okay, great. Next decision. It’s not going to be tomorrow. What is it going to be? If you feel any form of guilt or shame, reframe it. ‘I am lucky enough to have a cup of coffee in my house. I used creamer. It tasted good. I feel awake. What’s next?'”
Find the silver lining, and get rid of the feelings that make you feel like it’s toxic or bad for you. It’s a really interesting spot that I’m in, being a nutritionist in today’s day and age, because the reality is, there are things that negatively impact our metabolic health: processed sugars, liquid sugars, processed flours.
I have to be able to talk about those things with my clients, and then also say, “That’s okay.” What I don’t want is someone to make those decisions for themselves, decide to have those things, and then write off the day. I need you to make a choice, not a cheat that turns into a “bad day.” We need to be able to have these adult conversations, that these are things that are having a real impact on our metabolic health. But also, you are not a horrible person if there’s a spot for them in your life. How do you not let that spot become your whole life, the whole day, the whole week, the whole month? Because ultimately, your health is my goal.
Guilt, Shame, and Social Pressure
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: How do you coach clients who are coping with that shame by trying to counter a “bad” decision with a “good” one? For example, “Well, I ate this, but now I’m going to go run ten miles.” How do you approach that?
Kelly Leveque: I think there’s a lot of atonement. People think, “Okay, I had this fun weekend brunch, and now I feel like a horrible person, so I’m going to the gym for two hours because I had pancakes.” I really try to work with clients on coming from a joyful place, not a reaction.
There’s some real individuality in coaching that comes from this, but let’s say I have a client who feels that way. They keep finding themselves in these positions where they are making choices that they ultimately decide were not good. They feel guilty about them, and then they want to make up for them.
A lot of times, we’re going back to, “Why are you making this decision? Who are you making this decision with? Are you making this decision in a clear mind, with your goals at the center of this decision?” A lot of guilt and shame is wrapped up in the social setting. They think, “Hey, all my friends still go to brunch, and they get bottomless mimosas. And then they order the sticky buns for the entire table. I already feel badly that I’ve had the mimosa, so now I’m having the sticky bun, and now I feel like I need to go to the gym, but I’m a little bit buzzed.” And I say, “Okay. Would we ever hang out with these friends outside of the boozy brunch situation?”
Ultimately, if we are our own person making decisions for ourselves, and I decide as a 38-year-old mom of two that I want to go with my high school girlfriends and have a mimosa, I don’t want to feel badly about that. I want to be in a place where I’ve made that decision for myself. I know I might be a little bit buzzy after one glass of champagne because I don’t drink that much, and I have little kids. That’s a decision I need to make for myself. There’s no guilt on the back end of consciously going into a decision like that and playing it all the way through.
A lot of times, it’s breaking down why there is so much guilt and shame wrapped around that. Is it because you never really wanted to do it in the first place? Or is it because you are feeling like you don’t like where you’re at in life, and you feel like you’re derailing your goals? We just need to be clear with the people who love you and whom you love that, “Hey, I really am focused on my health right now. I’d love to hang out.” If you’re strong-willed enough and competent enough to go to a brunch, not have the mimosa, hang with your girlfriends, eat what you want, and leave, let’s make that the decision.
If you feel like you haven’t flexed that muscle enough and you don’t have a strong enough voice to get there and not have the champagne or not have the sticky bun when you don’t want to, I’m not suggesting that you hermit the rest of your life, but I’m suggesting you have a really candid conversation with your friends: “Hey, guys, you know that when we get together like old times, I want to have the champagne. I want to have the sticky bun. But I don’t feel great. I just spent two years in the pandemic, Zoom schooling my kids, putting on five pounds. My blood tests don’t look great. I need your help looking out for me. How about instead of a boozy brunch this Saturday, we all go for a hike on Sunday?”
I’m going to bet, working with females for as long as I have, that when they all get together and everybody hikes instead, everyone feels way better about the day. They feel better about the activity. They have more meaningful conversations. And, everyone gets a mental health benefit from it. It’s hard to be the instigator, but I am always coaching my clients to be the coach, coaching them to be the instigator in their community. When there are toxic food relationships where there’s guilt to drink, guilt to eat, bullying around food, and it seems like it’s not going away, we have to put some boundaries up.
You’re not here for them, and they’re not here for you. It is a relationship where both parties should benefit, feel supported, feel loved, laugh together, hike together, play together, cry together. That’s what it’s about.
We grow up. Sometimes we grow out of relationships. I’m not suggesting that we all break up with our best friends. I think there’s a lot that can be done when we have conversations. But just be that positive influence. Be the instigator. Get people excited to move their body. Get people excited to have a blood sugar-balancing smoothie. Have a brunch that’s healthy.
I have some really amazing high school friends. They all have lots of kids. Not even a month ago, I had them all over, and I had Fab Four smoothies and eggs. I had some almond flour, keto toast options with avocado. I tried to show up for everyone in a super blood sugar-balancing way. Everyone came over in their athleisure wear with their kids. And we kicked balls in the backyard and had that breakfast.
Those same girls would’ve probably said yes if someone said, “Hey, get babysitters. Let’s all go to a brunch.” But, being the instigator of the opposite and being the instigator of health, we all had those conversations. It was really easy with our kids. We all got to show up as moms, show up for ourselves and show up for each other. And that makes me really happy. That’s possible.
How do we infuse that into our friendships, so that we don’t have to be really anxious about our daily social life, or anxious about the relationships we have and what someone might be pressuring us to do or not do?
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: I love that. In some ways, I think if you become that person, you deepen your friendships. But it also takes out that other dynamic, where you might go to brunch and order something off the menu. You say, “Can I have two eggs? And can I have…”
All of a sudden, you’re that person in your group of friends who’s judging everybody, or seen as judging everybody or somehow monitoring everyone’s food intake. It creates this very uncomfortable dynamic.
Saying, “I want to bring you into what I’m really excited about and what’s working for my body, and I’ll provide it, and I’ll create something around that. I want to invite you to be part of that with me,” is such a great way to reframe it. It just changed the entire setting. Who knows? Maybe the next person who hosts in your group of friends will create an event just like you did, or something similar, a hike or something like that.
Kelly Leveque: In my early twenties, everyone was going out or trying to meet their significant other, and just getting out of college and into their careers. So now you have money to go on trips, and it becomes centered around social drinking or being out and going from party to party.
Many times, I empathized with the young women I worked with. It’s such a hard time because you want to be with your friends, but what feels right in your body may not align. Ultimately, you can stay true to yourself and find ways, like you said, to be the creator of these environmental experiences. Maybe it’s a nature experience. Maybe it’s a beach day picnic. Maybe it’s as much as saying, “Hey, do you guys want to go to a wellness spa and have a weekend, or a yoga retreat?”
It’s amazing to see the friendships that come out of these health explorations, and to help your friends along, because nobody wants to be in that place where they’re not feeling like they’re themselves, or that they can stand up for themselves. It’s pretty amazing nowadays, because all my friends are in the same place. They all have health and longevity—for themselves, their partner, their children—on their mind. They’re empowered by their knowledge of blood sugar balance and how they can show up for their kids and family in a really nutrient-dense way, but also not sweat the small stuff.
If someone’s in that stage where it’s a little tumultuous, or they’re having those social anxieties, it will pass. But also, don’t be afraid to infuse yourself into a community that has health on the pulse. How can you join a softball league or an intramural soccer team? Or how can you get entrenched in your yoga studio or your CrossFit studio or your Orange Theory Fitness or barre studio, wherever your community is? Now that the world is opening back up, go be in-person with people. Hug these people. Move with these people. Be in nature with these people. These are priceless moments we cannot take for granted.
The Varying Needs of Men Versus Women
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: You’re such a behavior change pro, which I think is amazing and needed as part of the entire, and, hopefully, collective change we will go through, in terms of rethinking health and food choices.
As you’ve worked with clients, have you noticed a gender difference in terms of some of the challenges or kinds of mental roadblocks that happen for men versus women?
Kelly Leveque: Realistically, men have higher testosterone, and their ability to fast is naturally a lot easier. Now that fasting has come into focus and has been popularized, and more and more women are trying to do it more often, in my experience, it seems that it’s definitely a lot harder for women to fast than it is for men. Men can easily have a cup of coffee and wait until dinner and be OMAD—one meal a day—no problem. They definitely need more quantity and are more sensitive to a lower protein diet.
I think women can get away with a lower protein diet, but are more sensitive to fasting. Generally speaking, we are entrenched in diet culture, and fasting feels restrictive. It feels similar to anorexic-like behaviors.
We are more emotional when it comes to food. When we’re fasting, there is more chance for a backend binge and making up for that. Evolutionarily speaking, we’re put here on this Earth to procreate, and for us to have a menstrual cycle, we need to retain a certain amount of fat. Our hunger hormones are raging for us to eat. We’re sensitive to those.
I am always working with people to understand how to regulate hunger hormones—how to calm hunger hormones and feel truly satisfied on a biological level—so they feel that freedom of not needing to think about food all the time.
If someone is looking to fast, I really, especially if they’re female, look at daylight hours. If you’d like to push breakfast back a few hours, 9:00 or 10:00 AM, okay. Let’s see how that impacts the rest of the day. But, more often than not, I’m having them have an earlier dinner. What ends up happening when they cut off feeding for the rest of the evening is that they naturally come down and have an increase in melatonin. They feel sleepier earlier. They get a better night’s sleep.
On the other hand, if someone were to say, fast until 2:00 PM, but then allow themselves to eat until eight or nine o’clock at night, those meals at the end of the night, or the dessert or the dark chocolate, can actually be more energizing and bring them up, impacting their circadian rhythm.
When we have a lack of sleep, we have less sensitive hunger hormones. We have less sensitive signaling. Ghrelin may be screaming at us, and we wake up. A poor night’s sleep is like having metabolic syndrome. They wake up. They’re starving. They want all the carbohydrates. They’re insulin resistant. They’re not getting the signals they need to feel full and satisfied. And then, all of a sudden, it’s backfiring.
Splitting males and females, I am particular about the type of fasting. With female clients, I’d much rather have someone get really good at balancing their blood sugar, because then you have the freedom and flexibility to eat in a bigger feeding window, without worrying about metabolic impact. Fasting is basically a shortcut to decreasing fasting glucose, to decreasing elevated insulin, and to having a little bit better mitochondrial health. How can we do that while eating? We do that in a balanced blood sugar state. It’s a lot of conversation. But I do have male clients who can easily fast until late in the afternoon, have a couple of big meals, and call it a day.
One Step at a Time
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: Let’s even say they don’t necessarily have access to farmer’s markets, or maybe not even a Whole Foods. Are there simple things that people can start doing, even if they don’t have a CGM? What are things that people can start doing right away?
Kelly Leveque: Let’s remove all the labels: organic, non-GMO, pesticide-free. I want you to simply focus on what protein, fat, and fiber options you have access to. Fiber, meaning greens, plants, nuts and seeds. Start with breakfast. How can you start your day with the Fab Four? Some source of protein, some source of fat, and some vegetables or fiber-rich foods. That’s going to unlock the rest of your day, and you’re going to be able to feel satisfied.
When it comes to evening time, one way to bring blood sugar down is to fast on the back end. Finish dinner at five or six o’clock at night. Digest that meal, and get to bed at nine or ten o’clock. That allows you to have a really deep night’s sleep. That’s going to be cleansing to your lymphatic system and your brain, and your body’s going to do all the amazing work of making sure that glucose is put away, and that you’re waking up with a lower fasting glucose number.
When you wake up and you’re not full of blood sugar and insulin, it is way easier to make those balanced decisions at breakfast, and decide, “Am I hungry? Maybe I’m going to wait an hour today, or maybe I’m going to have breakfast.” It really allows you to tune in to how you’re feeling and what you need.
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: Thank you so much for all of this information. I really hope that we get to chat again, because there are so many topics I think we could create an entire episode around.
Kelly Leveque: Definitely.
Dr. Lauren Kelley-Chew: Where do people find you?
Kelly Leveque: I’m on Instagram at @bewellbykelly. My website is kellyleveque.com. I have a multitude of courses that teach people how to balance their blood sugar, whether they have a CGM or not. I have a course on balancing your blood sugar during pregnancy, Fab Four Pregnancy; balancing your kids’ blood sugar, The Fab Four Under Four; the basics of blood sugar, Fab Four Fundamentals; and a mini course on how to make a Fab Four smoothie, which is my key to helping my clients fast track blood sugar balance.