Akua Woolbright, Nutritionist at Whole Foods Market
This Texas native moved to the D for a position as senior healthy eating and wellness educator at this local market. Find out what she's doing to give back to the community.
Akua Woolbright is a different kind of nutritionist. As the senior healthy eating and wellness educator at Whole Foods Market in Detroit, Woolbright takes a different approach when it comes to educating people on healthy eating.
The Texas native, who grew up on a small farm, won't just tell you to eat more fruits and vegetables like some nutritionists. Instead she teaches people that they need to shift their entire diet. Just eating spinach, for example, won't heal your body.
"People want you to tell them that. 'Just eat this spinach' and people go around still eating their dyed, processed and fast foods and throw in some spinach because someone said that," Woolbright, who believes in using food as medicine, says.
"To heal, you need a whole array of plant foods. You need more than the spinach. You need more than the goji berries," she says.
Woolbright, who has a Ph.D. in nutritional science from Howard University, came to Whole Foods Market in Detroit in August 2012 from the global headquarters in Texas.
"I was kind of always interested in food programs, food policies, working some on the government level, but also working some at the grassroots kind of lobbying, activist level," says Woolbright.
"My first graduate program was in sociology with an emphasis on race, class and gender differences and urban problems. Then I got the Ph.D in nutritional science. To me all of those things come together. I'm using all of it in the work that I do now."
What she does at Whole Foods
Woolbright teaches food as medicine. Her classes are aimed at using food to prevent and reverse disease. One of the lessons she teaches is the Four Pillars of Healthy Eating. Woolbright says these pillars were developed by months of conversations between her and the Whole Foods team of doctors from their total health immersion program, who also believe in using food as medicine.
She doesn't demand that people become vegetarians, but she does encourage people to eat whole foods – which are foods that are unprocessed and from nature – and eat more plants than anything. In her teachings, she also tries to get people to think about what they need in terms of food rather than what they have a taste for.
"I would say we have this two-legged stool when it comes to eating. We think about 'I'm hungry' and 'I have a taste for.' We get stuck on food choices because we are only thinking about food based on 'I'm hungry, I have a taste for, fill in the blank,'" says Woolbright.
She says people need to think about feeding their brains and central nervous systems – using food as fuel to get through the day, to heal and sustain their bodies.
Total Health Immersion Program
Woolbright firmly believes that food can heal your body and eliminate the need for medication. Before coming to Detroit from the Whole Foods global headquarters, Woolbright spearheaded a total health immersion program for Whole Foods employees. Whole Foods brought on 10 doctors who believed in using food as medicine. Woolbright says the team members who qualified went away for seven days with the doctors who use food as their only prescription.
"And we started seeing these team members come off medication by day three or four. We have testimonials of team members crying about being on insulin for eight years but by day four they were off some of their medication. We started seeing people drop 70 to 100 pounds in eight months and keep the weight off," says Woolbright.
"So we started research to track these individuals and we have that going on now. We do want to really highlight the success of the program to other companies to perhaps one day use it as a model to guide their efforts."
In January, Woolbright says she held some wellness classes to get people off the holiday celebrations, mentally and emotionally, and get back to a healthier lifestyle. She says she wants to do the same thing in the New Year.
"We offered things like a class on emotional eating. We did some yoga classes. We did some self-care classes, just to get people thinking about shifting back to the real world because we get lost in the holidays. It just gets so much fun," she says.
By the time February rolled around, Woolbright took people through a 28-day healthy eating challenge.
Woolbright says a lot of people who take her classes come back with friends and family.
"That's always a great sign when people come back and say, 'wow we need to come back to your class again and bring people with us.' What's really great is having people invite me out to their venues," Woolbright says. "I go around the community and teach classes. I go around and teach teachers and administrators. I have taught classes for medical studies, I've taught at churches, beauty salons, community centers, senior centers throughout the entire city of Detroit."
And it's all for free. Woolbright says that what she's doing now is her God given work.
"My grandpa who raised me was a pastor. And that was his mission. That was his calling. This is my calling and Whole Foods Market has given me the platform to do what I want to do anyway. So if it wasn't for Whole Foods Market, I would be doing it somewhere else," says Woolbright.
"It's a blessing to be in a company who can recognize who you are, that can recognize your strengths and your talents and your interests then give you the green light and say 'you know what Akua, go forth and do it. Do it whatever way you want to do it.'"
Next month, Whole Foods will be opening up a teaching kitchen at 3670 Woodward Ave. where she plans to have area chefs come in to show people how to create simple, healthy meals at home.
Thoughts on Detroit
Woolbright says she loves Detroit and that she and her son have taken advantage of all the things the thriving Midtown has to offer like the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Michigan Science Center, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
"I'm pinching myself. This is too good to be true. All of these wonderful enriching activities are just at my fingertips," says Woolbright.
"The city has a strong social environment (and) a strong young professional networking environment here. The fact that you have a strong black professional face here is just exciting to me," says Woolbright. "I'm having a ball. I don't know what everyone else is doing. We can do something about these winters. Crank the heat up a little bit."
Woolbright teaches food classes at Whole Foods Market community office on Woodward Avenue. To get on the mailing list for upcoming nutrition and culinary classes, send Woolbright an email.