Food, Mood and Lifestyle: A Matter of Balance


You’ve just set a goal that once and for all you’re going to start eating better, even drop some pounds in the process. So it’s kick that snack attack, forget the fries, can the cookies… first thing tomorrow.


Actually, simple shifts in selecting and preparing food can enable you to cope with stress, strengthen your immune system, eliminate cravings and smooth out your moods. First, comprehend that no single diet, from vegetarianism to Dr. Atkins, no ideal food exists that will work for everybody. “The proper diet is what’s proper for the individual,” says Grace Justiss, a holistic health counselor based in Orange Park. “There are as many roads to health as there are people.” Although eighty percent of the calls St. Augustine-based nutritionist Jackie Shank receives are regarding weight loss, each client means “you take a person and start over,” she says.

Next, “fragmented foods” are the cause of many of our dietary woes. Fragmented foods are fast foods or convenience foods: highly processed and laden with white flour, white sugar and unhealthy fats as well as “lite” foods that go heavy on pseudo sweeteners plus other synthetic ingredients to extend shelf life or create “mouth-feel.”


“When you’re eating fragmented foods your thinking is fragmented,” observes Justiss. For more than 25 years she has started her clients — many of them seriously ill in the beginning — on the path toward achieving health through eating whole-foods by taking down their life stories and creating what she calls a “roadmap for where they want to go.” Underlying virtually all of the immune disorders she encounters, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus and fibromyalgia and their accompanying brain-fogs are candida yeast infections. Candida is known to run rampant when there is excessive white sugar and high-gluten flour in the diet.

“We’re always under allergen attack, fogged-out from the high gluten in our diets,” says Millie Barnes of Ponte Vedra, who coaches weight loss and lifestyle management. “Gluten is a mucoid fiber that many have no ability to digest,” she notes. It is widely used, notably in the baked goodies we crave.

“We are using it as anesthesia,” Barnes continues. “People are getting an average of fifteen to twenty servings a day, often three to four in each meal.” What we cannot digest cannot give us nourishment. “Because we’re malnourished, we then crave fats,” she says, adding, “What we’re really craving is depth of nutrients.”


Partly to blame, according to Shank, is the Food Pyramid, which says we need six to eleven servings of bread, rice, cereal and pasta daily. “That’s way too much,” she says. Shank’s preferred yardstick is the Glycemic Index, which measures how fast individual foods raise blood sugar. “If you’re eating high-GI foods, they turn to sugar quickly in the body.” High sugar intake increases insulin production, and that can lead to more body fat.

To get past the white stuff, Justiss offers several alternatives: brown rice syrup, raw honey, maple syrup and stevia powder or extract. All take longer for the body to break down, avoiding the “quick hit now, crash later” syndrome.

When time is tight, use high-quality convenience foods like quick-cooking brown rice, suggests Justiss, pointing out, “Variety is essential.” Vary the flavors, cooking methods (steaming, broiling, sauteeing, baking), textures and colors. “If you do that, you will find balance,” Justiss states.
Barnes has her clients drop dairy products the first month, another source of allergens for many, and add lots of greens. The kids get started on fruit smoothies. Over the next two to three months the family graduates to seafood. “Six weeks later, you’re sleeping better and there are no more circles under your eyes,” she says enthusiastically.

Shank says she changed the direction of her practice when she realized “the profound effect of food on how we feel.” Her foremost question to new clients is, “Are you eating normally?” She finds that many are not eating normally, especially women in their forties to fifties who have been dieting for years.

A licensed nutritionist and dietitian for fifteen years, she sees a typical pattern: light foods and diet Coke, nibbling throughout the day. When this routine is constant, she notes, people are not responding to brain chemicals signaling the need to eat, especially carbohydrates, and “this sets them up for a food frenzy in the evening.” When the signal peaks at five a.m., Shanks suggests giving the brain its favorite food source — carbs.

This could be a bowl of oatmeal with a little honey. “Doing things like that wards off trouble later,” she says, adding that if we don’t respond because we’re into a high protein diet, a late day binge is inevitable. Shanks begins with creating a “whole health diet” with simple recipes slanted toward fish, whole grains and plenty of fresh vegetables.

Truly, “kids, stress, work are obstacles,” she says, describing “busy mom who goes through the day taking care of everyone’s needs but her own. She needs to learn coping skills.” As a self-awareness practice, Shanks suggests keeping a “food and mood” journal of what you’re thinking and feeling when you start and finish eating.

“People who are stuck in diets are afraid to go out and eat in public. They can’t let go of shame,” observes Lori Osachi, director of The Body Image Counseling Center (BICC), which opened in Jacksonville two years ago. The center is a place to figure out if you’re emotionally overeating, bingeing or purging — to find out why you feel bad about your body. Emotional overeating is one way of “numbing out” problems or pain that’s often rooted in traumatic events long past. Eating, like drinking or smoking, is a form of comfort.

Though a team approach, BICC’s therapists offer positive support. “Women in this culture are bombarded with negative influences, from the supermodels who dominate the magazines to supercritical family members, Osachi believes. One of the most successful treatment modalities she has found over the past decade is group therapy. Another is to limit media intake.

Wellness consultant Niki Lamont’s strategy lies in coaching or partnering with clients to strengthen their “understanding, awareness, observation, choice and outcome” in relation to food. When clients see Lamont at Alternative Wellness Center, she assists them in forging a new agreement with themselves: “They’re going to control food and drink.” In this way, she says, they can get past the sense that having tried and failed at diets. As Lamont puts it, “If the diet is the control and the willpower is weak, then diet goes out the window.” Lamont draws on a variety of protocols from hypnotherapy to Energy Psychology, a group of methods which can vary from client to client.

Holistic nurse Mary Cenci also addresses the issues behind the choices. “You can make good takeout choices if you have no time,” she says. Cenci, whose practice is based in Jacksonville, wants to know what drives or motivates the client to eat certain foods at certain times. “When stressed, do you still reach for candy, sugar or the bread basket in restaurants?”


People will eat to comfort, soothe, entertain or tranquilize themselves when they’re happy or unhappy, stressed or bored, Cenci observes. She has enabled clients to eliminate long-held cravings for chocolate and other guilt-ridden food choices in anywhere from one to five sessions through Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). EFT is composed of placing the fingers at points on certain of the body’s meridians (as mapped by the Chinese some 5,000 years ago) and using affirmation statements. By clearing the emotional drivers that make up self-sabotage, Cenci’s clients won’t find themselves backsliding next time they’re caught in stressful situations at home or work.

Clearly, many forms of loving guidance exist to get us past those obstacles to healthier, happier eating. So next time you hear that pint of Rocky Road calling your name as you walk by the fridge, remember this: you don’t have to answer.