Linda DiBella is meeting with a very excited client. After working with Linda for several months to improve her health and weight, Tammy jumps up from her couch to show that she’s wearing skinny jeans. Linda tears up in this moment, not because Tammy can fit into those pants, but because she has transformed emotionally as well as physically. After making some healthy changes, she has evolved into a happier, more energetic person.
Healthy changes take time and perseverance. Linda seems the picture of health now, with luminous skin nourished by healthy foods, a lithe body toned through yoga and a mindfulness developed with meditation. Yet it hasn’t always been so ideal.
Growing up in Enfield, CT, as the oldest child, she feels responsible for her two younger brothers. By age 11, she is cooking the family dinners, relying on processed and convenience foods, while her mother adopts fads such as the grapefruit or cabbage soup diets. By 1980, she is following a “healthy” high-carb regimen, as recommended by experts of that era. Not only does she struggle to maintain her weight, but she feels lethargic and depressed.
Married and working right out of high school, Linda postpones college until her two daughters are five and three years old. On a family camping trip during a college break, she gives herself permission to go off her diet. Remarkably, after a week of eating fatty foods like bacon, French toast, barbecue chicken and strawberry pie, she loses four pounds. How can this be, she asks herself? She begins experimenting, finding the right foods for her particular body. Not only does she lose weight, but she feels energized. She hasn’t been on a diet since.
Given her interest in health, she naturally gravitates toward biomedical courses, eventually earning her BS from the University of Connecticut. She dives deeper into science as a PhD candidate at UConn’s School of Medicine. It takes her 15 years to earn those two degrees while raising her children, some of that time as a single mom. She both becomes a grandmother and defends her doctoral thesis in 2004 at age 40.
As a postdoctoral fellow in the Genetics Department of the Yale School of Medicine, she thinks she has found her passion. She loves doing scientific research and, after completing her fellowship, even considers opening her own lab. Then she meets Emily Morrell, a Yale undergraduate who is co-founding Gardens for Health International, a nonprofit that addresses malnutrition in Rwanda. Intrigued by the idea, Linda volunteers for GHI for nearly four months.
Instead of working behind a lab bench, she teaches sustainable gardening and nutrition to families at a few large community gardens around Kigali. Instead of searching for drugs to fight genetic disorders, she sees she can improve everyone's lives immediately. “It was a life-changing experience,” she says.
When she returns from Rwanda, Linda enrolls at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition to become a certified health coach. She begins working with Holistic Healthcare Services in Belchertown, MA, and also starts her own consulting practice. Companies such as LEGO Systems, Inc. and medical groups like Baystate Health Systems begin appreciating her services.
Rosario Nelson, a nurse practitioner at Baystate's Quabbin Adult Medicine practice in Belchertown, listens to one of Linda’s presentations and takes note of her depth of knowledge. Usually, she and her patients feel they already know most of the basic information nutritionists would impart. With her advanced background in biomedical sciences and genetics, Linda offers much greater expertise. Rosario is so impressed that she not only refers patients to Linda, she also becomes a client.
"I wanted to find an eating program where I felt wonderful eating,” she says. “Linda would listen to what my hopes and goals were and fine-tune her approach. She knows what makes me feel good, what helps me lose weight. And most helpful – what makes me feel better physically."
Rosario also predicts that Linda would leave her small community for bigger and better things. So she’s not surprised when Linda soon receives an offer to join Nutritional Medicine Associates, an integrated medical practice in Austin, TX. She both moves to Austin and turns age 50 in August 2013.
"We hated to see her leave," says her mother, Lucille, "but she's very determined to do good." Linda had created a program for her parents, on which her dad, Cornelius, lost 25 pounds. Now that she's not around to coach them, Lucille admits that they "cheat every now and then," but still are doing pretty well. So are other clients whom Linda now coaches via phone or Skype.
Linda enjoys her new life in exciting, vibrant Austin. While exploring The Domain mall, her eyes light up at the sight of a Brighton store. She has been a huge Brighton fan for years, but no retailers carried the brand in central Connecticut and no online shopping was available until 2012. While she was at Yale, Linda had bought a Brighton watch on eBay but never received it because the seller shipped it to the wrong address. She persevered and found another watch she loved, one that she still wears.
Before discovering the store, she had never been in a Brighton. When she walks in, a friendly sales associate offers her bottled water and a chocolate chip cookie. Coincidentally, Linda is working with a local bakery to make her own grain-free, low-sugar chocolate chip cookies that she can offer through her practice. She has been developing it and other healthy recipes for many years. The next time she visits the store, she returns the hospitality by bringing in some of her cookies for the staff.
Where does she find the time to work at the medical practice, coach independently and develop a healthy line of food? “Life is determined by energy,” she says. “The more energy you have, the more you can do. I feel better at 50 than I did at 20.” As she takes on this next act of her life, she is proving that you are what you eat, and that age is just a number.