Food for Life Instructor Spotlight: Kerri Zemko

The Physicians Committee


Connect with Us

Food for Life Instructor Spotlight: Kerri Zemko

This month’s featured Food for Life instructor is Kerri Zemko from Portland, Ore., Here is her story:

Food for Life instructor Kerri ZemcoKerri Zemko, R.N., B.S.N., O.C.N., is known around the clinic as “research” or as “that vegan nurse.” She has worked with all phases of clinical trials in the areas of pain management, diabetes, HIV, arthritis, weight loss, smoking cessation, and, currently, adult oncology. Kerri laments that the vast majority of clinical research activity in each of these areas is pharmaceutical, whereas, on an individual level, the greatest gains are to be found in lifestyle: "The problem is that most people don’t have any idea how powerful diet is, or how easy it is to stick with the healthiest possible diet."

Kerri grew up as a moderately overweight American kid, sporadically involved with physical activity but consistently consumed dairy products. She absorbed conflicting nutrition advice and body image issues from the society around her, and grew very frustrated that a genuine desire to achieve physical and mental health was met with countless obstacles. Kerri’s ancestry includes lots of diabetes and Alzheimer’s, plus some probable metabolic syndrome and addiction. However, she knew she was born into a better position to avoid these fates through education and lifestyle, if only she could find the right information.

While working on her interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree, Kerri simultaneously concluded that Atkins-type diets were a horrible idea and learned about the environmental disaster of animal agriculture. Kerri became a lacto-ovo vegetarian in 1998 and continued to study nutrition as a hobby (a single class in nursing school, regrettably, doesn’t contribute much). After becoming a nurse and watching how, on a population level, Americans were eating their way into all their chronic health conditions, she sought a more powerful approach to prevention, one that people would actually stick with. Kerri decided in early 2008 to try a more whole-foods, fully vegetarian (vegan) diet for a week, to see for herself whether it seemed difficult. Immediately, she felt how much more healthful and rewarding this way of eating was, and never went back.

“I come from a science background and can seem quite serious about things like credibility of sources, good research design, wariness of fads or scare tactics, and recognizing that no single health variable exists independently from every other system of health. I’ve also thought very critically about concepts like well-being, diversity, richness, whole-person health, and how our relationships with other beings, communities, and our planet are a critical part of our existence. But when healthy food is the topic, I feel almost giddy. What a relief, what a gift, that the scientific evidence about what is healthiest for our bodies is also the dietary pattern that is most rewarding to our souls, palates, and value systems…oh, and that one simple set of dietary guidelines applies to every preventable disease!” says Kerri.

Since adopting a plant-based diet, Kerri has discovered a bounty of new and delicious foods, and found that she loves to experiment in the kitchen. She has eliminated cycles of cravings and a little excess weight, has enjoyed more mental and emotional clarity, has run two marathons, and has remembered her creative side. She is thrilled to utilize the Food for Life curricula in her teaching activities with patients, the public, and other health care providers, both mainstream and alternative, because they combine facts and the fun of food so well.

When not working, teaching, running, or creating healthy desserts, Kerri can be found exploring the Pacific Northwest with her massive (vegan) dog, singing in a community choir, building wooden things, and plotting her next international voyage...probably around food.

Catch Kerri in the kitchen! Learn more about and register for Kerri’s upcoming class series at Compass Oncology, visit the Food for Life website.