A Nutrition Therapist and Professional Runner Discusses Link Between Food, Mood, and Running

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“I’m fortunate to have had a solid relationship with food,” says professional runner, registered dietitian, and nutrition therapist Maria Dalzot. “I grew up in a household where dieting was never a thing. Body shape and sizes didn’t matter. We are Italian, so we eat. There’s never shaming, and nothing ever negative about food. I feel very grateful about that.”

Dalzot, a registered dietitian, nutrition therapist, and professional mountain runner is well aware that not everyone grew up with a healthy relationship with food and around body image. And even if they did, that relationship can change…especially during times of stress. The 32-year-old says she’s seen an uptake in needs from her clients during the past year of the pandemic.

She’s been vocal on Instagram about increasing awareness around the relationship between food and mental health, urging people to seek help if they feel they’re spiraling out of control.

We caught up with Dalzot to learn more about nutrition therapy and her take on how to maintain a healthy relationship with food and running, especially during these stressful times. (This interview originally appeared in Women’s Running). 

Women’s Running: What does being a nutrition therapist mean?

Maria Dalzot: When people hear “registered dietitian,” the connotation is meal plans, weight manipulation, weight loss, body manipulation, food rules, food police…that sort of thing. My counseling has shifted from the traditional weight-centric paradigm to health at every size and intuitive eating strategies.

I support people of all sizes in finding compassionate ways to take care of themselves, regardless of weight. Weight does not equal health.

WR: What influenced your shift?

MD: I saw the damage that was being done to people with traditional dietetic practices that are weight-centric and diet-promoting. I couldn’t ethically, morally live with myself by going on with the status quo.

There’s a significant relationship between nervous system dysregulation and food and body image difficulties. People didn’t understand why they kept repeating behaviors and unhelpful thoughts. We can’t think our way out of our thoughts and behaviors because all of our behaviors serve as a function for survival.

Disordered eating is a form of self-preservation. We’re doing these behaviors for a reason. But what is upstream from the behavior? The behavior is downstream. Nutrition therapy is really breaking down all of that. It’s not a passive process.

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WR: Can you talk about how the increased stress of the pandemic affects clients you’re seeing, and others who may not be aware that they need help from someone like you?

MD: Oftentimes people who are vulnerable to disordered eating, and this is a generalization, are the kind of people who need a lot of structure and routine in daily life to feel a sense of calm and purpose. The pandemic took that away; it took that piece of structure away. People started looking for something else to control. Diet and exercises seems an easy choice. Many people are using food and exercise to feel a sense of control in a situation that feels so unstable. That’s not inherently wrong, but sometimes it becomes a focus and a habit that spirals out of control.

I’m seeing that in newer clients—people spinning around, feeling bad, feeling like they need to do something. The drive to “fix it” comes in. There’s a threat that something’s wrong, so they grasp onto something they feel they’re doing something purposeful and helpful.

WR: How has social media influenced health during the pandemic, in your eyes?

MD: Now there are messages of bodies gaining weight and that this is the worst thing that can happen during this time. Diet culture sees an opportunity to gain from our vulnerability. We have so little control so “getting healthy” seems like a safe controllable thing to do, but it’s actually harming us instead of helping us.

There’s this message of, “This is what you should be doing,” all under the guise of wellness. But getting sucked into those messages is hurting ourselves.

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WR: How can people help themselves, or know if they need to reach out for professional help?

MD: It starts with being observant. The thing about it is a lot of these behaviors and thoughts are implicit. We can’t work on what we can’t acknowledge. But, looking out for odd mannerisms, peaks in anxiety, food rules, excluding things from diet when there is no need, preoccupation with food, feeling shame, ignoring hunger and fullness cues, being inflexible with your eating…Those are all signs.

What’s happening during this time makes people more susceptible to all of that.

And back to the social media question, we’re spending more time online these days. There’s susceptibility to fall into comparison and self-objectification, with women especially. Research finds a positive correlation between social media use, body image and more disordered eating. The pandemic has increased screen time because we’re looking for social support, an outlet, comic relief. We’re all grieving something, the loss of social interaction, work, shopping, et cetera. We’re grieving a new reality. Our behaviors are all in service of survival. When we shame people for using food and/or exercise for surviving right now, it’s really doing a disservice to mental health.

My goal is to help clients recognize these unhelpful messages and be able to say, “That doesn’t belong to me.”

RELATED: What is Healthy Body Image, Anyways? 

WR: Are there any more concrete cues that a person can look at in themselves, or seeing in others, that can help guide them toward needing help?

MD: Anything abnormal, out of the ordinary, changed, a hyper-fixation. If you feel like something’s wrong. You don’t have to reach out for professional help. Talk to a friend, or loved one. Don’t hesitate to reach out to someone who has the training and the skills to help. Learning more tools and broadening your tool box only helps other areas of your life. It’s a learning process.

I help my clients uncouple the shame and the guilt around their behaviors and instead make room for compassion and curiosity. My clients are compassionate people, but have trouble directing that compassion inwards. That’s a skill we’re consistently trying to cultivate and nourish.

WR: What about exercise addiction—like, needing to run to control anxiety caused by the times or other factors?

MD: I stay within my scope of practice. It’s more, “I don’t look like a runner and this bothers me because XYZ.” We do body image work around identity and values. But it is important to be aware: At what point does exercise become a problem? If we think about food and exercise as a resource, sometimes it feels better. Sometimes it makes us feel worse. Is this resource that I’m using to help me cope? Is it getting me to where I want to be? If it’s not, it’s not the resource that you need right now.

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