PEORIA — Though a healthy diet is a hinge-pin of a healthy life, it can be hard to get expert advice on the topic.

Ashley Thomas is working to change that. The registered dietician recently opened an office in the old Greeley School and is accepting new clients.

“I’m the only private practice dietitian in Peoria,” she said while sitting recently in her light-filled office, a former classroom. “If someone wants to see a dietician, they can’t just schedule an appointment with someone at the hospital. It doesn’t work that way. So I feel like I have a pretty valuable service to offer.”

Thomas accepts insurance, and through some plans, like most Blue Cross Blue Shield PPO’s, there is no out of pocket expense, she said.

“Most of my patients are finding me through their insurance plan. I’m listed as a provider,” said Thomas.

Patients are coming in for a variety of issues. Some want to get healthy and lose weight, and others need help managing chronic conditions such as kidney disease or irritable bowel syndrome.

“I prefer to work with people on a three month basis, where we meet weekly for the first month, then every other week for the next two months,” said Thomas. “If you are really working on trying to change something or are trying to heal a chronic condition with food, it’s really beneficial to meet with me several times. We can try something, evaluate it, see if we need to tweak it, and see if we can find something that works best for you.”

A personalized approach is important when dealing with food because people react differently to different foods. What works for one person may not for another, said Thomas.

“So we used to think that whole wheat bread is healthy for everyone, that it’s healthier than white bread, but for some people white bread could actually be healthier in terms of blood sugar management,” said Thomas. New research into gut microbiota, the organisms in our digestive systems which help us digest food, have led to discoveries about differences in the way people process food.

Thomas can also help people pinpoint foods that are causing problems. People with severe IBS can undergo the LEAP sensitivity test from Oxford Biotechnologies.

“Sensitivity testing is a blood test where they measure how certain foods react in your body,” said Thomas. “It kind of bypasses the whole food elimination phase, which can take some time and is kind of frustrating to endure. I’ve established a draw site here in Peoria because I’ve had a couple patients that have needed that test. It’s been very beneficial for them. They’ve cut out the highly inflammatory foods and they’ve noticed a reduction in symptoms within about two weeks.”

In addition to helping patients pinpoints problem foods, Thomas teaches people how to adopt healthier eating patterns. As part of that effort she started a live cooking show called Cook With Me.

“I’m doing this to reconnect people with their food,” said Thomas. “As a dietician I’ve noticed that people aren’t cooking much anymore, whether that’s because they don’t know how or because they lack the confidence or time. I’m trying to help people see that it can be easy, that it can be done quickly, that healthy doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated.”

During the 30-45 minute show, which airs on YouTube and Facebook at 6:30 p.m. every Wednesday, Thomas prepares a simple, healthy meal while answering questions the audience sends  through their computers. People who follow her on Facebook and You Tube get the recipe list ahead of time so they can have the ingredients on hand and prepare the meal while watching the show. Learn more by visiting www.ashleythomasnutrition.com.

A Florida native with a degree from Florida State University, Thomas opened her practice while living in Charleston, S.C. Late last year, Thomas and her husband moved to Peoria to be closer to his family after her father-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Though Peoria is smaller than Charleston, it’s proving to be fertile ground for Thomas’ endeavor.

“Everyone I meet seems so supportive of what I’m trying to do,” she said. “There is a very solid startup and business culture here, which I don’t think a lot of people know about.”

After taking the CO.STARTERS class developed by The Greater Peoria EDC, City of Peoria, and SBDC at Bradley University, Thomas met a lot of supportive folks, including Nikki Romain, executive director of ART Inc. which is housed in the old Greeley School. Romain offered Thomas office space with the thought that, in the future, Art Inc. will be doing cooking classes as part of their curriculum.

“It really is a good fit,” said Romain.

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.