‘Being thin was my goal in life, then everything changed’

Nutritionist Jessica Sepel talks about food’s powerful effect on the body, why vitamins get a bad rap and reassessing her approach to health.

How, exactly, does one end up launching a vitamin company that’s valued at $240 million and on Deloitte’s Fast 500 list? I knew I wanted to be a nutritionist from the age of 13, when my grandmother took me to a health retreat and I heard one give this amazing talk. I clearly remember thinking to myself, “I want to be like her.”

But then you began dieting a year later. Why? There was no social media then, but I was influenced by trashy magazines and watched FashionTV a lot. Being thin was my goal in life, which sounds pathetic.

From 14 to 24, I was a chronic fad dieter.

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I remember doing my Bachelor of Health, sitting in the lecture with a Diet Coke and tin of tuna, and that was my food for the day. When I began studying nutritional medicine and learning about the way food has power in the body, it all changed.

You have spent seven years studying nutrition at university. What do you make of those express online courses offering fast diplomas that allow those who have them to be “experts”? It’s worrying. I remember finishing my Bachelor of Health and thinking, “I don’t need to study anymore.” Then I went to nutrition school and was blown away by new information. I thought, “If I hadn’t done these extra three years, I should not consult as a practitioner.”

Before launching your vitamin company JS Health, you had a lifestyle blog and were an author. What prompted the transition? I wanted to create something that was separate from me. I started exploring cereals, but it became too expensive, so that project failed. But I have been obsessed with vitamins my whole life and practising as a nutritionist, I saw the power they had with my patients.

Two years ago you expanded into the US and moved there yourself. How did that pan out? I lived in the US and came back to Australia in December 2018 knowing I would go back in January to start a two-month stint on [the US] Today show.

That’s when my best friend – who was more like a sister to me – died by suicide.

I thought I would be fine. I couldn’t let the opportunity go, so I flew back to New York. But I started to have post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. I told myself to just get through the first show but… it was debilitating. After my second appearance, I knew I had to go home.

I gave up the biggest opportunity in my career because I didn’t acknowledge the impact losing my friend had, and the combination of grief and pressure was horrendous. I moved home, saw a therapist and went on medication.

Were you frustrated you couldn’t heal yourself? If you told me two years ago that I would have been put on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor [SSRI] drugs, I would have said “no way in hell”. I was a naive nutritionist who thought you could heal yourself through diet and lifestyle.

But it’s been a blessing because my whole approach to health changed. I now believe in the power of medicine with nutrition.

There’s a stigma attached to medicine for mental health. I resisted it for weeks, too. But if you need it, you need it.

The importance of good health has been highlighted during the pandemic. How do you take care of yourself? Disconnect. I switch my phone off after 7pm at night. It doesn’t matter how many greens and smoothies I have, I’m not the healthiest version of me if I don’t set boundaries.