At THIRA, we’re fortunate to have the guidance of a resident dietician. Emily Fitch brings her expertise in all things nutrition to each THIRA program and helps our patients to create positive relationships between food and mental health. Check out our interview with Emily below to learn more about her work and a few great tips for approaching your own relationship to food.
Tell us about what you do at THIRA Health.
My time is mostly spent seeing individual patients for nutrition counseling and education, facilitating a weekly group called Food and Mood, and ordering all the food and snacks for patients. I also help to supervise breaks and meals and support our fabulous team as needed!
When did you first decide to create a career around nutrition? What inspired your path?
I actually started my journey thinking I wanted to go to medical school: I did the undergrad pre-med track, took the MCATS, worked as an EMT (yes, I did get to drive the ambulance, no, it’s not as fun as it sounds), and shadowed physicians. It was during my time shadowing a pediatrician that I noticed parents had many, many questions about nutrition and how to feed their kids! I have always desired a career helping people to be their healthiest selves, and realized that my passion was in nutrition. I changed gears, got my master’s, and eventually found my way to THIRA.
How does food impact our mental state, mood, and overall happiness?
Great question, and it’s a complicated answer! Food is extraordinarily tangled within multiple aspects of our lives. We eat food for a variety of reasons: survival/energy, socially, emotionally, as a way to celebrate events, and many more. Because of this, food can play a major role in our mental state, mood, and overall happiness.
Adequate nutrition is absolutely essential for brain function – every cell, enzyme, hormone, really everything in our bodies came from nutrients at some point. We need to give our bodies the tools that it requires. For example there are five nutrients that have a direct role in the production of serotonin, a major player in mood regulation, and many more that play an indirect role. If we don’t have those nutrients available, we can’t make enough serotonin no matter how hard we try!
Even if we have adequate nutrition, there are some targeted ways in which nutrition can support mental health. There’s some really interesting research being done about the connection between the “gut” (your digestive tract) and the brain. Here’s what we’re sure of: there’s a connection, and it’s an important one.
Our relationship with food can also factor in to the equation, and sometimes this affects the quality of our nutrition. This can be a tricky one to navigate – and that’s also where THIRA can help.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you see women facing in regards to their relationship with food?
Wow, complicated answer again. One of the biggest challenges is the “self-talk”, aka the things we tell ourselves in our own brains. We tell ourselves horrible things that we would never imagine saying to another person! Negative self-talk isn’t always about food, or weight, but it’s a frequent offender.
Another challenge is our culture’s assumption that weight equates to health. There’s no magic number that makes a person suddenly healthy or unhealthy – weight is one of the many, many ways to evaluate someone’s health and it’s certainly not the most important. And, weight fluctuates throughout the day, week, even the month. I focus on health, rather than weight, because ultimately that’s the important part. Regular exercise, adequate nutrition, genetics, medical and mental health concerns, stress, and sleep are all factors that impact our health much more than weight alone.
Lastly, advertising and media significantly impacts women and their relationship with food and weight. The weight loss industry is worth $50 billion per year, and women account for up to 80% of the money spent in the U.S. This means that companies are invested in getting women to buy their products, and continue to purchase them! No wonder there’s so much advertising directed towards women, and specifically targeted at our vulnerabilities. Be a critical reader of these messages!
What is the best (or quickest) advice you can give someone who wants to have a healthier relationship with food?
Talk with a professional. Find a registered dietitian and/or mental health professional who can help sort through your relationship with food. Always be sure you are getting your nutrition information from a qualified source. Remember, the internet has all the information – and not all of it is factual. I don’t have one piece of advice that is guaranteed to work because we are all unique. My focus is always individualized care and figuring out what works best for you.