Meet Registered Dietitian Zachari Breeding
Zachari Breeding is a registered dietitian with Drexel Medicine. He provides nutrition recommendations and counseling to gastroenterology, pulmonary, internal medicine, hypertension and hematology/oncology patients. Zachari also sees approximately 90 patients in the Adult Cystic Fibrosis Center, working alongside a multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses and social workers to optimize care.
There are several paths you can take to a career in nutrition. What led you to become a registered dietitian?
My path was certainly an interesting one. Most of my career was, in fact, as a chef. After completing my undergraduate degree in culinary arts, I opened a catering and personal chef business. In addition to that, I worked at various establishments in the city including Sal’s on 12th and Hotel Sofitel. After that, I started managing the kitchen at a nearby Wegmans Food Markets. Between my clients and the people I served at Wegmans, I found more people asking me about nutrition. “I have diabetes; can I have the fruit soup?” they would ask. As a chef, I knew very little about nutrition, and I felt uncomfortable giving recommendations to people simply based on my knowledge about food. I thought about what it meant to make food my passion and my career – nutrition had to be a part of that. So, I decided to leave my busy career as a chef, move to New York, become a dietitian and help people with medical conditions figure out what to eat while keeping it delicious.
As the in-house nutritionist, can you tell me a little bit about what you do at Drexel?
I have the opportunity to work with most of the physicians in outpatient practices here at Drexel. In conjunction with them, I see patients and provide nutrition counseling. I review labs, previous care history, medications and anthropometrics (measurements concerning body size and shape). I use this information to discuss the patient’s dietary and fluid intake, lifestyle habits and behaviors, and knowledge of cooking and nutrition. Depending on their condition, I provide a complete list of recommendations that may include: meal plans, dietary supplements, fluid and physical activity advice, healthy cooking techniques and even follow-up with a specialist. I work as part of the medical team to discuss the patient’s care with the physician, offering additional insight to the person’s state of health. My main goal is for every patient to leave with more information than they had and a better understanding of why nutrition is important to their health.
Since nutrition is important to a patient’s health, can you expand a little more on the relationship between diet and disease?
I always tell my patients, friends, and really anyone who will listen, that food is our only source of fuel. People are constantly in “output” mode — living, breathing, talking, working, playing, raising children — you name it. Our only way of feeding our body the energy it needs to survive is with food. Our bodies are constantly active in one way or another, even while we sleep. When we put in bad fuel (i.e., make unhealthy choices in the foods we eat), we increase the risk of certain diseases. Most of the major causes of death in the United States have direct correlations to nutrition (think about nutrition and heart health, for instance). At the same time, a healthy diet can also help someone overcome disease. Nutrition can help mitigate the high and low blood sugars associated with diabetes; it can help someone lose weight and avoid further stress on the heart and joints; it can even help someone gain weight during chemotherapy. For every disease or condition, there is a nutrition therapy that supports it.
One risk factor of colon cancer is poor diet. Can you recommend any "colon-friendly" foods that might help with prevention? Are there certain foods that should be avoided?
Fiber is the most common nutrient associated with a healthy colon. Fiber is found in whole grain products such as breads and pasta, but also on the outside and inside of fruits and vegetables. Fiber can help increase stool bulk, regulate fecal pH and generate short-chain fatty acids, which are absorbed readily throughout the body and are generally protective to colonic tissue. Another nutrient is omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in certain nuts, seeds and fatty fish such as salmon. These fatty acids help reduce inflammation, which is a cornerstone of most disease states including colon cancer.
Avoiding excess salt, saturated fat and alcohol are all great ideas to promoting overall health. Drinking plenty of water (at least 8 cups) helps keep the colon healthy. During treatment of colon cancer, most recommendations include small frequent meals and avoidance of “high residue” foods that consist of nuts, seeds and skins of fruits and vegetables. To alleviate diarrhea or gas, some patients may benefit from avoiding greasy or fatty foods and certain vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, onions, etc.). That said, it is important to meet with a dietitian and physician to discuss specific nutrition recommendations tailored to a person’s individual needs.
In addition to telling people what they can and cannot eat, do you also give advice on healthy food preparation and cooking techniques?
What is food without cooking, right? When I talk about food, I seamlessly discuss cooking and preparation methods. For instance, if a patient says they’re eating chicken, I want to know how it’s prepared — fried, baked, broiled, sautéed, grilled — and is there an accompanying sauce or gravy? These could potentially add calories, sodium or fat. I believe all dietitians have a responsibility to know about food preparation and cooking because it directly impacts the nutritional value of the foods they consume. In addition, people do not just eat to get nutrition. People eat to socialize, to show love to someone, to care for a loved one, to celebrate or to relax. Food is love, and I make it my job to home in on the social and emotional qualities of food in order to better understand how I can help them make more nutritious choices.
What are a few quick and easy ways people can improve the nutritional value of their meals?
Ask yourself: “Where are the vegetables?” So many people just forget. At the same time, make sure there are at least three colors on your plate. If everything is in hues of brown, you likely are not eating a balanced meal. Ask yourself: “Do I need fries with that?” In other words, ask yourself if you really need or want a particular food. Avoid frying, grease and salt as much as possible. Choose whole grains and drink tons of water. Most importantly, love the food you eat.
As a nutritionist who also loves to cook (and presumably eat), what's your favorite meal?
Though this answer changes whenever I am asked, one of my favorite meals is a big plate of grilled chicken and vegetables. When the weather gets warm enough, I’ll grill a few bell peppers, onions, squash, mushrooms, chicken breast and flatbread brushed with olive oil. Paired with a few interesting cheeses and homemade hummus, it feels like eating the way people were meant to: whole, simple and delicious.
What do you like most about working at Drexel?
I love working in a multidisciplinary setting. It is rare that dietitians get included and respected as part of the medical team. I consider myself fortunate to work with amazing nurses, medical assistants, physicians, social workers and specialists who respect the importance of nutrition and the impact it has on the overall care of the patient.