Perhaps you saw functional nutritionist Lisa Zaffer Olson’s 12-year-old son Andrew on ABC’s Windy City Live! this past April. A producer from the show spotted Andrew on Olson’s social media channels taking a snack break from e-learning with a healthy green smoothie and asked that he recreate the drink for the daytime talk show.
That spirit of sharing and education, says Olson, is the goal of Mighty Seeds Nutrition, the blog she founded to translate nutrition science into information that anyone can use and inspire ways to easily cultivate positive associations with food, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle habits. One might even say it’s in Olson’s genes.
“Growing up Greek, meals are about so much more than food,” says Olson. “Aside from nourishment, it’s about connection, culture, and tradition. My grandfather had a produce business in Chicago and later went on to have restaurants in the area for decades. As a child, I grew up in an environment focused on food, choosing the right ingredients, and preparing meals.”
That naturally extended to an interest in nutrition, health, and wellness, which Olson ultimately pursued to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Along the way, she learned about functional nutrition, an emerging subset with a personalized method of optimizing health based on individual genetics, lab values, lifestyle, and more. But what does that actually mean? The focus is on the patient versus the disease.
“It really aligned with my personal philosophy,” says Olson. “We are all given a set of genes, but it is largely up to you—through diet and lifestyle—to decide which ones to turn on. It’s an empowering field.”
Her passion led to a position with a health sciences company, where Olson trained physicians and other licensed health care providers how to utilize nutrition to correct metabolic imbalances and how to achieve genetic potential through nutrition. But after years of working with adults, she saw firsthand the challenges of trying to make these changes later in life.
“And when I learned that this is the first generation of children not expected to outlive their parents due to diet and lifestyle choices, I knew something had to be done,” explains Olson of her inspiration for launching Mighty Seeds Nutrition. “Why not find a way to teach these principles at a young age so that they are always a part of a child’s
consciousness? Planting the seeds of education now will set them up for a lifetime of healthy choices.”
Recognizing that children are bombarded by food industry messaging in the media, predominately with foods higher in sugar and fat, Olson says it is important that they are also exposed to healthy messaging and healthy food choices.
One of Mighty Seeds Nutrition’s most popular classes is Sugar Shock, in which Olson teaches elementary and middle school students about the concept of nutrient-dense foods, what happens in your body when you have sugar, and why sugar should be used in moderation. Students learn to read the sugar content on labels of common drinks and snacks and then measure it out with visuals.
“As we know, children are not always motivated by health and wellness, so I try to break down what it means to them,” explains Olson. “I start by asking them what they are interested in, like sports, academics, or even just playing Fortnite, and then tie it back into how this will help them improve in that particular area. I bring awareness to how they are feeling when they eat different foods. Connecting how it affects their physical, mental, and emotional health will help them understand how their food choices make them feel, and will stick with them as they grow.”
Olson first started volunteering in her children Andrew and Ellie’s classrooms when they were in preschool. Once they realized what it meant to have their mom at school, she says, they simply asked that she make any activities fun.
“When kids are engaged, they learn, and when they learn, they feel a sense of empowerment,” says Olson. “Understanding the education principles guides them to more informed choices. It’s much easier to create a healthy habit from the beginning than to try and undo unhealthy habits later in life. Food is inextricably linked to social, emotional, and mental health and development and contributes to a sense of belonging, connection, well-being, security, and nourishment. It really affects the overall quality of life.”
Bringing nutrition to schools has been a perfect complement to current wellness curriculums. Like many businesses, this year Mighty Seeds Nutrition has shifted to have more of an online focus and is now offering online programming and social media on all aspects of wellness.
At home, Olson lives by the mantra that we should make kids food-friendly rather than make foods kid-friendly.
Her top tips are to get kids involved, whether that means choosing produce at the store or selecting a dinner recipe from a cookbook; think about presentation and try creative displays with colorful bowls of veggies or rainbow fruit skewers; swap out sodas and other sweetened beverages for healthy alternatives, and; avoid using food as a reward.
Olson aims to choose recipes that are quick, nutritious, and less than five ingredients (“I’m obsessed with my Instant Pot!”) and particularly loves those from Skinnytaste and Against All Grain. Her go-to snacks include a mini, kids-style charcuterie board, protein energy balls, and sugar-free lemonade.
But, Olson recognizes, everything in moderation. With respect to nutrition, she follows the 80/20 rule, which says what you do the majority of the time builds the foundation that allows room for flexibility otherwise.
“In high achieving areas like the North Shore, it is especially important to find balance and to not only focus on nutrition but also on factors like sleep, stress, movement, and spending time with loved ones,” says Olson. “Recognizing the challenges that have arisen from COVID-19, there are silver linings that have come out of it as well. In a way, it’s been like a giant cleanse, allowing families to reset priorities and habits. We are eating meals together, cooking together, and exploring nature together. In some ways, we are all connecting now more than ever.”
For more information and for upcoming programming, visit mightyseedsnutrition.com or follow Olson @mightyseedsnutrition on Instagram and Facebook.