After graduating from Darden and the UVA School of Law, Michael Stroka (MBA/JD ‘95) lived the jet-setting lifestyle of a Boston Consulting Group consultant and project leader, solving client problems across the U.S. and then Southeast Asia.
“It was a phenomenal experience, until a life-changing event struck,” says the dual-degree graduate.
He got food poisoning from some dodgy street food that he ate from a street vendor in the back alleys of Indonesia. The pathogen sent his health on a downward spiral that culminated in his diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. “Basically, it’s like having the flu every single day,” Stroka says.
No longer strong enough, he had to quit his hard-won, high-flying BCG job and began to focus on recovering his health. “I saw every kind of doctor in the medical system. No one could bring me back to health.”
He then explored a new solution: therapeutic nutrition (i.e., a personalized diet) to restore optimal health. “I ate the first meal designed for my unique needs,” says Stroka. “It was a revelation. I felt normal for the first time in a couple of years. And to me, that felt like being Superman.”
Before this pivotal moment, the former consultant was following the conventional wisdom of low-fat eating. “I had been eating things like low-fat chicken with steamed rice. But what my body needed was the exact opposite: rich fats, high-powered proteins, and foods loaded with antioxidants and probiotics.”
Stroka explains that “the nerves in our body have a sheath around them made up of fats,” so a fat-free diet leaves the nerves “inadequately buffered from insults like inflammation. You are wired rather than calm. And that’s a feature of chronic fatigue syndrome — the nervous system is often in overdrive.”
This was not just a turning point for Stroka’s well-being; discovering personalized nutrition also radically altered his career trajectory. Rather than returning to BCG, he went back to school and earned a master’s degree in human nutrition and became a Certified Nutrition Specialist. Then he set about the tall task of “moving nutrition to the core of our health and health care.”
He sets out the problem: “Conventional medicine is amazing for acute conditions, but the vast majority of the problems we have are chronic conditions for which nutrition is crucial. The science shows nutrition is the most powerful lever for our health, but health care attention to it is miniscule.” Indeed, only 14 percent of doctors feel they are equipped to discuss nutrition with patients.
Stroka cites research showing that 60 percent of American adults and 27 percent of children suffer from chronic disease, and treating these conditions accounts for 90 percent of the $3.3 trillion annual health care costs. Poor nutrition is the leading cause of chronic disease, and it is responsible for more deaths in the U.S. than smoking or any other risk factor.
Stroka’s solution was to co-found and serve as CEO of the American Nutrition Association (ANA), through merging five organizations (American College of Nutrition, Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists, Accreditation Council for Nutrition Professional Education, Center for Nutrition Advocacy and Nutrition for Optimal Health Association).
The combined entity, a nonprofit organization, champions the science and practice of personalized nutrition through education, certification, public policy advocacy and connecting the personalized nutrition ecosystem.
The potential is big. About 90 percent of the risk of chronic disease comes from modifiable daily actions. For instance, early intervention with nutrition and lifestyle changes prevents diabetes more effectively than the leading prescription drug.
Stroka says his team of 150 staff, board members, key funders and volunteers has built a solid foundation from which to progress. Already, the ANA has notched many successes, including, through policy advocacy, making it possible for a more diverse set of qualified practitioners to obtain licenses to practice nutrition in U.S. states, thereby boosting public access to nutritionists.
Only 25 percent of medical schools require students to take even one dedicated nutrition course. “It used to be a very closed system where only narrow types of providers could do the work. We’ve opened it up so people can access a wider array of practitioners. It’s been a sea-change,” Stroka says.
His experience at Darden and UVA Law from 1992–96 has been central to his success with the ANA, particularly the broad MBA curriculum covering the staples of strategy, operations, finance, marketing and more. “At a nonprofit especially, you need to be a jack of all trades because you don’t have the resources of a Fortune 500 company,” says Stroka. “Darden did a great job of building a management foundation. It teed me up nicely.”
He singles out Professor Jack Weber’s organizational behavior class as the most important of all. “I am helping catalyze such a wide array of people, institutions, stakeholders, processes and functions. Learning how to navigate that, and develop an organism that can thrive, has been indispensable.”
For example, Professor Weber got Stroka to complete a thorough self-analysis to truly understand himself. “That was very powerful because it helped me really understand the nuances of me as a person and what I can bring to the table — my strengths and weaknesses as a leader. He helped me to understand there is no cookie-cutter way to run an organization.”
For now, he plans to use those MBA skills to grow the ANA. “There’s so much potential to change peoples’ lives through nutrition. We are at a point where we are poised to catalyze major change in Americans’ approach to health.”
To learn more or connect, email Michael Stroka.