Jennifer Kraker, MD, MS
Psychiatrist, Nutritionist & Nutrigenomics Expert
I met Jenn at a Li.st event over a year ago, and we immediately hit it off. I had just decided to take a serious career leap, leaving a career in professional services to pursue my passion for health and nutrition. She, as you will learn, has a wealth of knowledge around all things nutrition, has built a thriving practice combining nutrition and psychiatry, and she was all-in on providing advice, active support and encouragement in my next chapter. She has showed up for me in multiple ways, numerous times, and I am delighted to introduce you to my friend and mentor, Dr. Jennifer Kraker.
Follow her, become a patient, check out her articles here and on her website.
Look out for her next article which addresses the recent Consumer Reports article, Lead and Cadmium Could Be in Your Dark Chocolate, and join us for a discussion to learn more about this report and what we serious dark chocolate lovers should do now!
Tell us a little bit about your background and relationship with food growing up.
I became more aware of my relationship with food when I was 9. My father, my hero in my youth, suffered a severe quadruple bypass surgery. It was clear his decadent eating habits were seminal contributions to his cardiovascular condition. At the same time, my body consciousness was increasingly palpable in my precociously pubescent body. I grew curves well before my peers and wore sweatshirts in summer at soccer practice to hide my developing body. I also had a tricky GI system. This confluence of factors led to a passionate interest in how what we put in our bodies and how much we move affects our health. Perhaps in rebellion to my mother’s sugar addiction and my father’s affair with saturated fat, I tried on many experimental diets: vegetarianism, veganism, low fat diets, raw food veganism, paleo, keto, plant-based — you name it. Each iteration was an education in itself. Many decades later, through trial and error, the burgeoning science of nutrigenomics and conscientiousness of my own inherited cardiovascular risk, I’m highly attuned to my unique risk factors, taste preferences, genetics and lifestyle. My life is a version of my parents’ influence, with a distinct and decided focus on sourcing and preparing nutrient dense gourmet organic food. It’s my passion, and my endless fascination — how what we put in our body actually is information that helps us thrive or fall ill.
What inspired you to pursue your professional path?
My path to becoming a nutrition / precision psychiatrist was circuitous. As long as I can remember I knew I wanted to be a physician. I’m not exactly sure where this began except to say I am a relentlessly curious spirit, and my attention has long been on the inner workings of what makes all sentient beings function. From the molecular to the mechanical, from DNA to spirituality, I’ve been interested in the how and the why of the human body. I knew I would become a physician.
It was also clear what people put in their bodies and how much they move were key determinants of health. I loved science and math in high school. I double majored in nutrition and biochemistry in university. In the search for medical schools, I was struck by the paucity of nutrition education offered (in my researching of medical schools, Tufts had the most nutrition education of any medical school offering — 12 hours). So I set out to get a master’s in human nutrition prior to starting medical school. Columbia University had the ideal program in human nutrition geared toward clinicians.
A mentor of mine at graduate school, Richard Deckelbaum, was inspirational. He is a pediatric gastroenterologist, and ignited my 20 year old self with rescue fantasies, towards a career in pediatric gastroenterology working for Medicine Sans Frontiers. My future was becoming crystalized, international pediatric gastroenterology — it married nutrition, (the GI tract is the organ that absorbs nutrients), medicine, my fantasies of saving the world, and my novelty seeking. It was decided. I began on this path toward a medical degree with an international emphasis.
Along the way, I met amazing female mentors who modeled the career of my dreams, working with malnourished kids in refugee camps in Rwanda and other war torn areas. While many women had the professional role of my dreams, few if any, had a family life. Not a life I wanted. Now what?! It so happened, around this time, my last rotation in med school was psychiatry. I shadowed a doctor on the wards, we met with acutely ill patients after suffering heart attacks, COPD, and other chronic conditions with acute decompensation leading them to a hospitalization. We rounded as psychiatric consultants and addressed related mental and behavioral health aspects of their disease. I was smitten.
I can have meaningful relationships with my patients, talking to people about the root cause of their illness, most of which are behavioral?! I love diving deep on anything and examining the underpinnings of a disease. I met a diabetic woman who soothed her depression and loneliness with food, if only we could treat her depression, urge more human connection and her diabetes may not have gotten so severe. Another man suffered from COPD, as the downstream effect of his smoking, that relieved his anxiety. If only, we helped his anxiety many years prior, we might have avoided this outcome. I was sold on psychiatry.
I was determined to marry my two loves, nutrition and psychiatry. At the time, few of my colleagues understood my pursuit outside of eating disorders. During my psychiatry training, it was evident that we needed more than medications and meditation. Nutritional biochemistry and underlying hormonal signals have a profound effect on our brain — a highly metabolic organ. Using nutrition and metabolic health data has changed the outcome of my patients more than medications alone. I’m grateful that the field is burgeoning and excited to be part of the movement.
Tell us about your food philosophy and the type of food you create and seek out.
I like to balance mindful eating with not being too obsessional. I stay between the lines 90% of the time AND I have champagne at New Year’s, a glass of wine with dinner 1-2x/week, eat a piece of my favorite carrot cake for my birthday etc. I gather with loved ones over simple and seasonal meals. I source fresh vegetables from the local farmer’s market and add a piece of wild caught or responsibly-farmed fish.
A recent favorite was roasted cauliflower cut in 1 inch thick slices, drizzled with olive oil and truffle salt paired with Ōra King Salmon.
What have been the biggest challenges in founding and building your private practice?
Currently, my biggest challenge is not being able to meet the needs of all those who seek my services. In the current climate, mental health needs are at an all time high. People suffering with mental health conditions are looking for a different, more personalized approach. So particularly those of us who integrate nutrition and metabolic approaches have waiting lists too long to serve. I regularly reflect on how to increase service offerings for those in need. While technology has helped, with AI and robots promising for integrating data, it falls short of empathetic human connection. We need a better way.
Where do you get your energy and support to persevere?
I have an insatiable curiosity about how to optimize our brain health, well-being and performance. I internalized my father’s wisdom to “follow your passions and everything else will follow.” I love to learn about my field. When I learn of a new angle, new research published, excitement begets more excitement, and so it goes. My husband is my rock and grounds me in much of what I do.
How do you care for yourself?
I’m a sleep princess and sleep 8 hours a night. I walk many places and love to spend time in nature. I’ve been an athlete in various forms most of my life. At this season, I strength train and use a dry sauna 3-4 times per week. I eat a nutritious diet and supplement my deficiencies. I spend quality time with my family most evenings and gather with friends a few times a week. I derive immense satisfaction and meaning in my work. I take regular breaks and travel to beaches and mountains.
During this time of year, there is so much talk about resolutions, intentions, goals, etc. How do you advise your patients on this topic?
I invite my patients to get really curious about the origin or the value driving their resolutions. We tend to reflect deeply using the ancient Buddhist teaching of asking “why” seven times. If a patient wants to stop drinking for example, at first glance a common refrain is to be healthier. Why? To have more energy. Why? To be present for my family. Why? They are the most meaningful people in my life and I want to create memories for us to embody for life…and so on. With every re-examination layers of depth that drive us are revealed. The deeper value often aligns with a meaningful intention that we are likely to keep when we know why. As we know, resolutions rarely last.
Holiday Brain Hacks
Dr Jennifer Kraker, Psychiatrist and Nutritionist, on strategies to care for your brains and bodies when festivities can take precedence over our health.