Change Your Relationship with Food in 2020: Interview with Dietician Brigitte Zeitlin

With the New Year approaching, many of us are thinking about resolutions and how to create positive change in our lives. Since losing weight is the most popular New Year’s resolution, I sat down with Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, CDN to learn more about the food-mood connection, weight loss tips and how to develop a healthier mindset:

  1. Many people have a love/hate relationship with food. As a dietitian, how often do you see emotions being the root of the problem? To help people with their food issues, do you have to act as both a therapist and dietitian?

A lot of my clients have complicated relationships with food, not exactly love/hate. But a lot more nuanced and deeper.  Some people have grown up thinking of foods as rewards, or in a diet culture where they were made to feel guilty of food-shamed for eating certain things, or body-shamed, or grew up watching (and taking on) someone else’s disordered eating habits. Our relationship with food runs deep and is definitely varied from client to client.

My practice is nutrition counseling, so there is a lot of counseling that I do to get to the root of what is getting in the way of my client’s goals, and then working to rebuild better habits and re-shape that food relationship that has them a bit stuck in their old habits.  I am certainly not a therapist, and am very quick to refer out to one when the counseling is beyond my scope. But I am well versed in what disordered eating sounds like and how I need to deprogram that mentality and re-establish a healthy basis for the nourishing role food should be playing in one’s life (not the stressful one).

In my experience, emotions are not the initial cause of a troubled relationship with food, but they can trigger certain food habits that exacerbate the issues (like overeating when you are depressed or lonely or overly-restricting when you stressed or sad).   Peoples relationship with foods seems to develop around their environment: first, in the home they grew up in and how food and mealtime were treated like there and then later in their college environment around drinking, eating, body comparisons, eating disorder culture in college…these are the two main times of life that we create and shape our relationship around food.  Breaking it down and rebuilding a healthier version takes time and an RD you can trust and work well with to establish healthy connections with food.


2. We hear a lot about how food can impact our mood but, how does what we eat relate to how we feel?

All foods are made up of various vitamins combinations of compounds like vitamins (A,D,E, K, C, and B vitamins), minerals (such as sodium, calcium, potassium), fatty acids (like omeg’3s and 6s) and sugars.  The more processed a food is, the more artificial ingredients it will have as well like different forms of sugars, chemicals, etc.  All of these compounds effect the way we feel (they can calm anxiety or exacerbate it) they can affect the way we think (either more alter and focused or more sluggish/slow to respond).  Foods that are higher in sugar (like white flour products, sugary cereals, juice, candy, cookies, processed foods, fast food, etc) tend to increase feelings of anxiety and cause mood swings.  Foods higher in B vitamins (like whole grains, nuts, nut butters, eggs, poultry) and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, tuna, hemp hearts, nuts, nut butters, avocado, olive oil) all work to lower anxiety levels, decrease cortisol (aka the stress hormone) and boost our energy and mood.

High sugar foods like fries, pasta, candy, cookies, and other typical “comfort foods” spike your blood sugar and then cause it to quickly drop which is what causes your mood swings and sends your hormones into a rollercoaster which usually ends with you feel more anxious.  And if you are someone who is already dealing with stress and anxiety, this will only make it worse instead of giving you that “comfort” you are looking for.  Where are that piece of whole wheat toast with some almond butter with actually work from the inside out to calm your anxiety thanks to those B vitamins, omega 3s and minerals like magnesium. What we put into our bodies has a direct correlation with how we feel mentally.

3. When we think about weight loss, many people think about diet and exercise but emotions are also part of the weight loss equation. Can you explain?  

If your goal is weight loss, then being mindful about your food choices and exercise routine are the way to get you there.  But they “why” you’re losing weight is also a key factor in making those changes last long-term, and the why is the emotional component that is so crucial to long-term sustain weight loss and healthier relationships with food.

If you think you are going to be “happier” or more attractive to potential partners by losing weight then you are not addressing the real health issue, which is your self-esteem, confidence, or anxiety.  No doubt that losing 20 pounds will boost your self-esteem (if you have 20 pounds to lose!) but by expecting the weight loss to fix your internal state all on its own, is not the whole picture.  You can still be just as depressed and unhappy 20 pounds lighter, just in a smaller size.  Your mental health game needs to be a part of your weight loss game.  You need to be mindful about what is driving your desire for weight loss.  Sometimes, people also self-sabotage their weight loss goals, because so much of their identity feels wrapped up in being the “overweight, funny one” and if you’re not the overweight one anymore, how do you redefine yourself.  So, weight loss is not a separate issue from your mental health, it is all wrapped up in the same 9already) beautiful, gorgeous, bow that is your body.

4. Are there specific foods that are good for our mood and mental health? Which ones should we stay away from?

Foods that boost your moods are foods high in B vitamins, omega-3s, and magnesium…some of these overlap and work as a total mood-boosting win-win.  Aim to work in more unsalted nuts, nut butters, salmon, olive oil, avocado, hemp seeds, bananas, spinach, dark chocolate, quinoa, oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, sweet potatoes, tofu, and edamame.

Foods that tend to screw with your mood are foods high in sugar and salt: processed foods, fast foods, fried foods, white flour products (read: white rice, white breads, baked goods), candy, sugary cereals, and juices.

5. What are some takeaway tips you can give readers to develop a healthier mindset? What is the first step they can take today to transform their relationship with food?

Well, fist ask yourself: Are you someone who:  groups foods in terms of “good foods” and “bad foods”?; gets stressed out about food situations that are out of your control?; has a lot of food rules? .  Answering yes to any of these questions would be an indicator that maybe your relationship with food is doing more harm than good.

If this is you, I would:

  1. ask yourself if you know where these ideas originated from…this may not be an easy answer, but it’s important to spend time thinking about.
  2. take a deep breathe and remind yourself that foods have NO moral code, there is no such thing as a bad food, that cupcake did not sleep with your boyfriend behind your back.  This nomenclature is made up BS, all food is nourishing just in different ways.
  3. Start doing yoga…I know, some of you may be rolling your eyes at me, BUT yoga helps to fight anxiety, boost actual feel god hormones (that those French fries cannot!) and it promotes self-acceptance and self-awareness as part of it’s course practice…two things that we all need more of when trying to recalibrate our relationships with anything/anyone.   Enlist a buddy if that is more comfortable, love the buddy-system!
  4. If you are feeling stressed and anxious about food more often than not, then it’s time to phone a friend…and by that I mean an RD or therapist that can help tease this out with you more.

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