Integrating Healthy Foods for Improved Care

By: Christine Devereaux, CTRS, RYT & Veronica Grengs, BS, BA

Food Integration

As technology grows, as research continues to build, and as we start communicating and collaborating across segmented fields, it is inevitable that integration amongst helping professions will emerge; in fact, symbiotic relationships have already began. Integration is needed to bring quicker progress and safer services into the lives of each individual we work with.

A positive example of field integration is food and therapy services. More people are starting to take on the tasks of learning and action in this area for their health and wellbeing as well as their family’s. Diving into nutrition and diets comes with perceived stress and responsibility. But, when we break it down and simply look at food, it becomes a little more simple and nonthreatening to approach. The most significant aspect of food, both in our personal lives and when integrating it into our services, is its direct role on health and illness specifically related to inflammation. This is especially important when looking at the health of people who are rehabilitating, children, seniors, and people who have autism and developmental disabilities.

Overwhelming research is making it impossible to not recognize the role food has on our wellness, recovery, biology, and quality of life. There are a variety of helping professions and the underlining theme of each is wellness, specifically in occupational therapy, applied behavior analysis, and recreation therapy. It’s important that therapists in these fields have a basic understanding of food’s impact on health, because we often use food as a medium to bring about positive outcomes through cooking. Occupational Therapists and Recreation Therapists use cooking for coordination, balance, scanning, sequencing, fine and gross motor, executive functioning, life skills, independence, and strength (hand, forearm, or lower extremities by standing). Behavior Therapists use it for life skills, social skills, problem solving, regulation, planning, reading, listening, math, and more. So there are a number of purposeful and necessary implementations of cooking and in my belief, it is one of the most effective techniques we have to bring about positive change and maintenance.

The question we have to ask ourselves as therapists is:

 Are the foods we are choosing to incorporate in these therapeutic programs positively or negatively impacting 1) The intended outcome, and 2) The individual’s growth, health, and success?

Field Definitions and Impact

The definition of Applied Behavioral Analysis according to Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968 is:

“Applied Behavior Analysis is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior.”

Are the foods we are choosing to implement supporting or hindering behavior?

The definition of OT according to the World Federation of Occupational Therapists is:

“Occupational therapy is a client-centred health profession concerned with promoting health and wellbeing through occupation. The primary goal of occupational therapy is to enable people to participate in the activities of everyday life.”

Are the foods we are choosing supporting or hindering health and wellbeing, and is this support or hindrance carrying over into how clients are able to participate in activities of daily life?

The definition of Recreational Therapy according to ATRA:

“A treatment service designed to restore, remediate, and rehabilitate a person’s level of functioning and independence in life activities, to promote health and wellness as reduce or eliminate the activity limitations and restrictions to participation in life situations caused by an illness or disabling condition.”

Are the foods we are choosing supporting or hindering health, wellness, ability, illness, and/or disabling conditions and are the foods supporting or hindering the ability to restore, remediate, and rehabilitate?

The Gut-Brain Connection

It all starts in the gut. The gut is referred to as our second brain, encompassing 100 million neurons, more neurons than the spinal cord. So you can see how, the foods we are feeding neurons will have a direct impact on our health, cognition, and behavior and visa versa.

“... dysfunction in the gut doesn’t always lead to gut symptoms. For example, more than 30 percent of people with “leaky gut” (i.e. intestinal permeability) do not experience digestive distress. For them, leaky gut manifests in a different way— skin problems, brain fog, anxiety or depression, autoimmune disease, and joint pain are just a few examples. The same is true for gluten intolerance. I work with children as well as adults, and it’s not uncommon to see kids with behavioral issues… that improve significantly or even disappear entirely after removing gluten from their diets. These kids (and their parents) may or may not have been aware of a gut problem, but it was fixing the gut that fixed their brain. 2,500 years ago Hippocrates said “All disease begins in the gut.” We’re only now beginning to learn just how prescient he was. Another way of putting it is this: you’re only as healthy as your gut.” - Chris Kresser (Sara Gottfried, MD).

Inflammation in the body can cause:

sick health.jpg
  • Disrupted brain-body communication
  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Pain
  • Executive functioning challenges
  • Memory issues
  • Tissue and muscular disintegration
  • Skin rashes and irritations
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased anxiety
  • Depression
  • And many more

(Clevland Clinic), (NCBI), (Science Direct 1), (Science Direct 2).

Additionally, with inflammation, comes impaired immune systems. Chris Kresser says it best when he says, “We know, as we’ve discussed many times..., that gut health contributes to proper immune function because 70% to 80% of the immune system is in the gut. Poor gut health can predispose us to everything from autoimmune disease to allergies and asthma to skin problems like eczema and psoriasis to cognitive difficulties, depression, anxiety, to metabolic problems like obesity and fatty liver. I mean, the list really goes on and on, and it’s quite astounding when you dive into the literature and see all of the various connections between the gut and other systems of the body and all aspects of health.” - Chris Kresser

These numbers have to be considered when providing cooking classes to anyone, especially those with already weakened immune systems.

We know that food can cause or alleviate inflammation depending on the choices we make, our biological makeup, and current life situations; but, what is inflammation, exactly?

Inflammation is our body’s response to healing itself. So, inflammation isn’t always a bad thing, but too much inflammation can lead to just about every ailment under the sun. I have found it claimed by research, scientists, and functional medicine practitioners more and more that inflammation is the root of all dis-ease. The term dis-ease is used to describe disruption in the body that can be reversed over time, with natural approaches.

Overall, the intent of inflammation is good and when we experience some inflammation, sometimes, it means the immune system is working; but, when it becomes chronic inflammation we can see illness and dis-ease erupt presenting as depression, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, skin rashes, chronic infection, cancer, periodontal disease, and much more. Each of these affecting our behavior, mood, quality of life, and wellness. (Chris Kresser 2) (NCBI 2).

So What Do We Do About It?

The 8 main inflammatory causing agents:

  • Corn, soybean, and gluten
  • Processed Foods
  • Sugars
  • Trans fats
  • Stress
  • Allergies and sensitivities

Avoiding these foods, especially in cooking programs is a significant first step to take towards supporting clients and their individual goals.

Looking at processed foods, trans fats, sugar, and food sensitivities more specifically:

  • Processed foods are typically in a package and the food item is dyed or white. This often means the product has been refined, processed, and even bleached. Try fresh produce, quinoa, and sprouted grains instead.
  • Trans Fats make food taste good and last longer, but are dangerous to your health, specifically hazardous for your heart (heart disease and stroke). Try healthy saturated fats like avocado and coconut oil instead.
  • I can write an entire post on sugar, alone. A few quick notes on sugar:
  1. It’s in almost every processed food item: ketchup, barbecue sauce, yogurt, non fat items, low fat items, drinks, crackers, and on and on.

  2. Steer clear of sugary drinks. These are loaded with sugar and have been found to be the biggest cause for diabetes. Drinks like fruit juices, pop, “healthy” drinks, milks (especially flavored), and even some bottled waters have sugar in them at extremely high doses, especially for children’s consumption.

  3. Sugar currently goes by 61 different names. If it sounds like a healthier sugar like brown rice syrup, it’s not.

  4. Fruit is a good source of sugar! Eating a whole fruit (not juiced) will give you fiber allowing the body to process the sugar healthfully.

  5. Try substituting natural sugars like honey and maple syrup into your sweet treat recipes.

  • Food allergies and sensitivities also play a huge role in inflammation. Although blueberries are healthy, chalk-full of antioxidants, and recommended for anti-inflammatory support, someone may be allergic or sensitive to them causing an inflammatory reaction that may not even be recognizable to that person. We highly recommend getting a food allergy/sensitivity test done by a functional medicine practitioner.

Foods That Decrease Inflammation

When talking about how food can support our health and decrease inflammation, Dr. Axe says it best. Everything you need to know is in the article. For a quick transition into healthy cooking, implement as many of these real foods (granted there are no allergies or sensitivities), into your cooking programs as you want!

Taking Action

As always, prior to implementing food/cooking programs, you need to know each individual’s food allergies and special diet. Next, here’s where you can start:

  • Healthfully Independent recipe booklets. Each booklet is a real food recipe, contains assistive visual layouts, and supports an anti-inflammatory diet. Healthy eating doesn’t have to be a chore, boring, or gross!
  • Watch Fed Up. View it with your friends, family, have movie night at your facility. It’s a very well done documentary teaching us about inflammation, specially from sugar and sugary products.
  • Share the infographics within this post with people you work with
  • Take up and implement stress management activities: yoga, medita tion, pranayama (breathwork), tai chi, massage, chiropractic services, daily walks. Here are a few resources:
  • YogaTX (FREE) on YouTube
  • Headspace App
  • Calm App
  • Mindfulness for Children (FREE)
  • Resources (FREE)

By simply removing inflammatory-causing foods, adding anti-inflammatory foods and practices, learning more, and educating on this topic, I’m confident we will have different answers to the original question:

Are the foods we are choosing to incorporate in these therapeutic programs positively or negatively impacting 1) The intended outcome, and 2) The individual’s growth, health, and success?


See more of the authors’ work at:


  1. Clevland Clinic;
  2. NCBI;
  3. Science Direct 1;
  4. Science Direct 2;
  5. Sara Gottfried, MD;
  6. Chris Kresser;
  7. Chris Kresser 2;
  8. NCBI 2;




Christine Devereaux