Food is more critical to how we live than we think. A poor or erratic diet can weaken our connections between body and mind, lower self-confidence, lead to bad habits and more. But for Kerry Fannon McCarthy ’12, a certified eating disorder registered dietitian (CEDRD) and owner of Namaste Nourished LLC in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, sometimes the misinformation is as harmful as the problem.
“When we hear about eating disorders, we picture a thin, young female, but there’s so much more than that,” said McCarthy. “There’s eating disorders with athletes, eating disorders in men; food is abundant and available in our country, so it’s become this way to self-soothe. We have such extremes — we have the huge, $70 billion-plus diet industry, then we have these all-you-can-eat buffets. We really have become very all-or-nothing around food as a society.”
Through her work as a dietitian and nutritionist, McCarthy helps clients eat healthy and moderately as well as dispel their underlying fears surrounding food. Her approach incorporates working alongside mental health professionals to develop a plan of action that can help them live comfortably without veering from one extreme to another.
In this age of self-professed food gurus, instant-gratification diet fads, “highlight reel” meal plans and questionable science, it’s hard to know where the truth lies, and people aren’t always taking advice from experts.
Dietitians are the only professionals in the country who are legally qualified to give someone a meal plan, and she cautions that many of the latest trends aren’t based on facts or proven science.
“Just because everyone eats food, everyone thinks they’re food experts,” said McCarthy. “You have all these health bloggers putting out there [images of] this thin, ideal girl with a burger that’s bigger than her head. They say, ‘try this diet, it worked for me, so it’ll work for you,’ which isn’t true.”
The misinformation surrounding food and nutrition perpetuates the diet culture that we live in, especially where weight is concerned, McCarthy said. Most metrics that equate higher body weight with poor health like Body-Mass Index (BMI) are correlation studies, not causation studies.
“Even if you look at BMI for athletes, it doesn’t take body composition into account. It would classify a very muscular athlete as being obese, just because of the equation.”
McCarthy’s journey into the world of nutrition literally began in the kitchen. An avid home chef, she entertained the idea of attending culinary school, but wasn’t looking to work in a restaurant. Interested in science and sports as well, she saw nutrition as a pathway to combining all three.
It wasn’t until her senior year at Auburn, when she interned with Atlanta dietitian Paige Love, that she thought focusing on eating disorders. Soon, she was fascinated by it. Nearly a decade after working with Love, McCarthy still applies her judgement-free approach to her clients to help them understand “mindful eating “and “intuitive eating” through working with them and empowering them to take away moral judgement of food and trust their food choices.
In October 2019, she married her husband Randy McCarthy shortly after moving to Fort Lauderdale and opening her private practice Namaste Nourished, LLC. A certified yoga instructor since 2013, she incorporates breathwork and meditation into her practice, adding another layer to the mind-body connection central to her business.
The woman who pioneered the CEDRD certification was dietitian Tammy Beasley, a 1984 graduate of Auburn University and president of the Alabama Dietic Association since 2015. Her work incorporates the idea of “Intuitive Eating,” a concept developed in 1995 by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch to make diet plans that creating lasting success.
Unable to keep the weight off or create positive behavior changes, Tribole and Resch’s clients would “rebound” and gain the weight back, leaving them “feeling guilty, shameful and out-of-control around food,” McCarthy said. Incorporating behavioral psychology into their work with clients, they developed the intuitive eating methodology to explain positive eating habits.
In the medical world, term ‘non-compliant’ is used to describe patients unable to follow their treatment plan, but to really look at a person as a person, you have to ask “why,” McCarthy said. Learning more about psychology has helped her be less judgmental and understand the layers of eating disorders created by society.
“We call an eating disorder a ‘creative adaptation for survival.’ It’s a bio-psycho-social illness: ‘something happened in my life,’ then an eating disorder is activated. It looks really destructive for someone on the outside, but for the person using the eating disorder, it feels really, really good.”
McCarthy takes clients through a “habituation” process of exposure therapy where foods that trigger out-of-control behavior are incorporated into therapy sessions to get at the root of their issues. Every session is individualized, focusing on questions of how they grew up with food, what foods they feel are “good” or “bad” and the kinds of reactions or coping mechanisms they can avoid.
Changing someone’s diet takes more than one session — she meets with her clients weekly, sometimes for as long as four years — but by setting bigger goals linked by smaller, periodic ones, she develops trust between client and their underlying issues. She eats with clients to build their confidence and model good habits, as well as runs an eating disorders support group that discusses treatment goals, control tips and life in general.
“It’s important to know that you’re understood by other people who are going through something very similar to you.”
McCarthy hasn’t given up on her culinary career, either. She wants to write a mindful eating cookbook, as well as develop online courses to supplement her in-person work. On her website, she writes blogposts on tips to practice mindfulness throughout the day.
“When you’re eating a meal, try to pay attention to your first bite, a bite in the middle and your last bite. Try to sit down when you’re eating and using as many of your senses as you can during a meal,” she said. “Help activate being in the moment.”