Leigh Wagner comes from a family of cooks.
“My dad’s side even has a Wagner family cookbook,” the 27-year-old nutritionist said last week.
“And being in sports all the time, I was interested in what I was eating.”
That love of food -- and eventually the science behind it -- helped lead the Lincoln Southeast graduate and college high-jumper to her career in the Integrative Medicine Program at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
She loves her job. Working one-on-one with people -- sick and healthy -- about using diet to improve how they feel.
She believes in what she does.
And what she believes is this: “Food is medicine.”
That philosophy was put to a close-to-home test in December after her brother, Tyler, 29, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma.
“We turned the kitchen and nutrition world upside down,” Leigh said.
“He was very open to everything I threw at him.”
And after months of intense chemotherapy, Tyler is finishing radiation and will begin 18 months of maintenance chemo. (More about that later.)
Wagner landed her dream job after finishing her undergraduate work in Iowa and moving to Kansas.
A few months into her graduate studies, she learned about the integrative medicine program. “I didn’t even know it existed.”
More specifically, she heard about its demonstration kitchen, where staff helped patients learn to cook for health.
“I weaseled my way in there,” she says.
Pretty soon, she was tweaking recipes, doing research, finishing up school -- and spending a summer helping low-income Kansas City moms grow produce and cook nutritious meals for their kids.
Meals using simple ingredients, grown in good soil.
It’s the advice she gives when people ask about diet.
“At the bare minimum, think about using more whole foods or real foods.”
Usually, those foods have a single ingredient.
A chocolate chip, oatmeal granola bar, wouldn’t fit the definition.
A tomato, broccoli, a piece of salmon or almonds, would.
Pay attention to what you eat, she says. And pay attention to how you feel after you eat it.
“I want people to listen to what their body is telling them. Our bodies know.”
People can make other small changes: drink filtered water, buy organic, use “clean” cooking surfaces, like glass.
Of course, she backs up that advice with blood work for her clients. She looks at their histories, their genetics, environment, stress, allergies, sensitivities.
And she’s busy.
Wagner is booking appointments 45 days out. Jeanne Drisko, the doctor who started the integrative medicine program, has a four- to six-month wait, all for care not covered by insurance.
“More people are wanting it,” Wagner said. “They’re asking for it.”
People such as Marg Donlan, who with her husband, Ken, brought Wagner and Drisko to Lincoln last week to speak about the integrative approach.
Donlan was diagnosed with fibromyalgia 17 years ago and started her search for alternatives to traditional medicine.
She had success.
Drisko now is her doctor, and Wagner is her nutritionist.
“This is the first time I’ve ever worked with a dietician as part of my medical care,” Donlan said. “And I’m loving it.”
In California, Tyler Wagner loved having a dietician as part of his medical care, too.
His sister came out as soon as she could after his diagnosis, Tyler said last week. They had a goal: “Create an environment where cancer could not survive.”
They eliminated sugar, got rid of dairy, stuffed him full of vegetables, got rid of gluten, went organic.
“If you think about diet as a sliding scale of one to 10, we were at a 10.”
He’s back to an 8 now -- the occasional burrito, the Burger King chicken sandwich he sneaked off to snarf. (He also has a permanent aversion to kale chips. He ate too many going through chemo.)
His last bone marrow biopsy came back clean. And his sister has gone back to the role of sister.
But he’s happy for the help she gave him, and excited about the work -- food as medicine -- she’s doing in Kansas.
“It makes sense. Why would we ignore nutrition?”