At THIRA, we’re fortunate to have the guidance of two registered dietitians on staff. Emily Fitch and Allison Thompson bring their expertise to all things food and help our patients to create positive relationships between food and mental health. Check out our interview with the dietitian team below to learn more about their work and a few great tips for approaching your own relationship to food.
Tell us about what you do at THIRA Health.
Emily: My time is mostly spent seeing individual patients for nutrition counseling and education, supervising meals and snacks, and supporting our wonderful staff and programs.
Alli: Similar to Emily, I provide individual nutrition counseling and work to support our patients during meal and snack times. I also teach weekly classes for our partial hospitalization program, in which we explore the connection between nutrition and mental health.
When did you first decide to create a career around nutrition? What inspired your path?
Emily: I started my journey thinking I wanted to go to medical school and, during my time shadowing a pediatrician, 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, but this experience helped me realize that my passion was in nutrition. I changed gears, got my master’s, and eventually found my way to THIRA.
Alli: I made the decision to enter the field of nutrition during my early college years. I entered college knowing that I was passionate about science and health, but not quite knowing which avenue of practice best suited me. After taking my first class in nutrition, I realized that this was a field that would allow me to engage my scientific interests, connect with the community and also talk about one of my favorite things (food)!
How does food impact our mental state and mood?
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 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’s the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?
Registered dietitians must:
- obtain at least a bachelor’s degree (a master’s degree is mandatory beginning in 2024) in nutrition through an accredited school
- have 1200 completed hours of supervised internship work through an accredited program
- pass a comprehensive national examination
- maintain credentials through continuing education
There are no credentials towards becoming a nutritionist. In the state of Washington, you can apply to be a Certified Nutritionist (CN) if you’ve completed a master’s degree in nutrition.
What’s your favorite food?
Emily: It’s a toss-up between sushi and macaroni and cheese. Both delicious!
Alli: Peanut butter (crunchy, of course)!