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Dietician Vanessa Rissetto Dishes On Achieving a Healthy Mindset About Food

Vanessa Rissetto is a registered dietician in Hoboken, NJ and co-founder of Culina Health. She is also the dietetic internship director at NYU, where she teaches students how to be dieticians. Vanessa and Culina Health are on a mission to make health and wellness accessible to everyone. We spoke with Vanessa about how healthy mindsets can inform healthy eating and misconceptions around diet trends.


ANSER: So what does a dietician actually do? 

Vanessa Rissetto: So registered dietitians go to school and sit next to nurses and doctors and PAs. We take biochem and organic chemistry. I've learned in these acute care settings, so I'm able to really help you achieve whatever goal that you have is.

There's a lot of clutter around nutrition science, because nutrition science is very new. We've only started studying it since World War Two. In World War Two, our soldiers were dying at 21 years old. We were doing autopsies and finding that their arteries were completely clogged and we didn't understand why. And we figured, okay, well, it must be the food that we're serving these men in combat. Obviously, as time goes on, we realized that there were other factors in that, but that's 70 years ago.

Every time you hear, "Eggs are good, eggs are bad. Wine is bad, wine is good," you never really know because we can skew any nutrition study to say whatever it is that you want it to say. So I'm here to help you cut through that fluff and achieve the goal that you want.


ANSER: What are some of the most common themes you see in your practice?
VR: The same theme over and over again right now with diet and wellness is anti-diet. People for so long have been restricted, they've been taught let's not eat this macronutrient. Let's do this extreme thing. And then let's elicit this really big weight loss.

But what we're finding is that 40% of the population has some sort of disordered eating. Maybe your belief is "I can't eat carbs, because if I eat carbs, I'm gonna be fat. So I cannot eat that." Or "I can't eat past seven o'clock." Or "if I eat those cookies, then I have to run seven miles the next day." The thing is, fear is a middle ground. If your goal is to lose 10 pounds -- for whatever reason, there's nothing shameful if you want to lose 10 pounds. Maybe that's what you and your doctor have decided together or during COVID, you've been eating a lot of things that you think aren't really in line with whatever your goals are. We can do that in a way that's realistic, and doesn't make you lose your mind.

"What we're finding is that 40% of the population has some sort of disordered eating."

But if you are restricting, and you have all these negative thoughts around you and what you're eating, then there's a problem. I think there's a place for everyone to achieve whatever goal that they want, you just need to be very clear on that. And you need to do it in a way that's sustainable, so that you have a healthier mindset around it.


ANSER: Growing up, what did self-care mean to you?

VR: Growing up, self care wasn't an option. My parents are very strict. My mom is from Haiti, my dad is from Spain. But it was just "do what we tell you to do and fall in line." The thing is, though, food was not a self care thing. Food was just how we connected as a family, and my parents really like to cook. My parents never policed my food ever. If I wanted to drink a two liter bottle of soda, nobody cared, as long as I got hundreds and every single test and didn't go to jail, those were the focuses.

As I got older, though, self care really meant, taking time for me, meditation, going for walks. I'm really into exercising, I really believe in the release of endorphins. So exercise is a big one. I think that self care is whatever you can do to quiet all the noise and take time for you, whatever that looks like. Maybe it's cooking. Maybe it's sitting with your kids and playing a game. Maybe it's in the morning reading the newspaper. I think that if you just figure out what that 5, 10 minutes, 30 minutes that gives you joy and peace, then that's what you should be doing. 

ANSER: So what is the most basic explanation of nutrition?
VR: Your metabolism is basically like a fire. If there's not enough fuel on the fire, it doesn't burn. If there's too much fuel on the fire, it doesn't burn. So you want to always make sure that your metabolism knows to work. And so how do you do that? You do that by eating at timed intervals, where your metabolism is like "Oh, I'm awake, it's time to work."
"Your metabolism is basically like a fire. If there's not enough fuel on the fire, it doesn't burn. If there's too much fuel on the fire, it doesn't burn." 
ANSER: So you're saying it's more complex than "calories in, calories out"?
VR: Yes and no, because not all calories are created equal. So if you had a 100 Calorie Pack of Oreos, for example, it would spike your blood sugar, it would tell your liver to make calories, store fat, and send insulin out into the bloodstream. If there's always insulin out into the bloodstream, you're always gonna have an issue with weight. So if you can stabilize your blood sugar, you're not going to have all these spikes. So to use the lamest example, but the one that is tried and true, is an apple with peanut butter. There's fiber, there's carbs, a little bit of protein, a little bit of fat. So instead of having this spike, it's going to be like a rolling hill.
"That's really what weight loss is about. It's stabilization of blood sugar."
So the 100 Calorie Pack of Oreo cookies is not the same as 100 calories of apple and peanut butter. With the Oreo cookie, you're always going to be craving more junky carbohydrate and you're always going to be looking for more food, where this apple and peanut butter would slow down digestion and just keep you full until the next meal. That's really what weight loss is about. It's stabilization of blood sugar. But weight loss is not sexy. It's not fast and slick. So it's a lot of work. And it's not linear.

ANSER: We've heard you mention before that people have 35 chances a week to eat well. What does that mean?
VR: So 35 times a week, that's three meals and two snacks every single day. If you can do that right more than 75%, then you can get to your goal.
"35 times a week, that's three meals and two snacks every single day. If you can do that right more than 75%, then you can get to your goal." 
Let's say you want to be plant based. If you say to yourself, "I have five chances a day to do that. And I did it three times in the day and not two times." That doesn't make it seem like you failed, right? It makes it feel like okay, I was really successful. And also, if you are on a weight loss journey, for example, but your friend is coming to town, and you haven't seen this friend a long time and you want to go to your favorite steak house, now you can go to that steak house and have your wine and have your steak and not all is lost and still get on the scale and see results. Are they going to be the same results as if maybe you hadn't had that decadent meal? Probably not, but still results so you don't feel derailed.

When you have this all or nothing stance like I have to eat no sugar or whatever fad diet you're doing, the second there's a little shift, everything is lost. And then you did all this work for no reason and then you get discouraged and go the exact other way.

ANSER: How do you help people overcome judgement or shame they have about their eating choices?
VR: I always tell everyone, every meal is a new chance to do better. Whatever better means to you. It's a new chance to eat only plant based, it's a new chance to not eat sweets, it's a new chance to not have alcohol. Every meal is a new chance.
"Every meal is a new chance." 
If you're going to engage in this behavior that you judge yourself on - because I don't judge you - then you better enjoy it. Otherwise, there's no point. There's always a reason to feel bad about yourself, so let it not be that you ate a Snickers out of your kid's Halloween candy. It's a waste of time and mental space.

It's not easy, though, because there's so much judgment everywhere you go. There's judgment about what you're wearing, how you raise your kids, what kind of, plant milk you had or the fact that you drink regular milk. Everyone has something to say and nobody wants to let anybody live!


A lot of times when I'm talking with clients, I have to spend four and five and six sessions, just having them understand that I'm totally on their side, and I'm not here to judge them. I'm just here to help them. And sometimes, then they come to that realization on their own. A lot of times, they'll be like, Oh, wait. So actually, I don't really need to lose 20 pounds, I really just want to lose five and learn how to eat better, because I'm always going towards things that I know are unhealthy. 

I don't care what diet culture says, you can't eat pies of pizza every single day and be healthy. That's not healthy. So if you want me to help you not eat a pizza every single day, we can get there, and we have to unpack all of the emotional things that are there too. It is a process. That's why I say it's not linear. There's all this up and down. But once people realize that I'm on their side, and they trust me, and they believe me, then we can get down and do some really, really good work. It just takes time.

ANSER: What's your advice for people starting out on their healthy weight journey?
VR: When you're starting out on your healthy weight journey, the most important tip is to just do what's right for you. Do your own research. Stay in your own lane. Just because your friend did something doesn't mean that's going to necessarily work for you. Health journeys are very individualized and health means different things to different people.
"Health journeys are very individualized and health means different things to different people." 

Try to talk to other people see what other people have done just to see like what sounds like something you might be interested in and then go seek the help of a professional. Most practitioners like myself take insurance, so you could probably low-level commit before you take a huge leap, and see what would actually work for you. Yeah, Adele did this Sirtfood diet but Sis, Adele has a chef that makes lettuce and laxative tastes like cookies. So she good. We're all regular people.

ANSER: Does the way we think about food need to change? And how can that change stick?
VR: I don't even know that you necessarily need to change it per se, except we need food to live and food is a way to connect. So stop feeling shameful around food. You should feel happy, you should feel grateful that you can eat food. Don't feel shame because you ate a cookie, don't feel shame because you like diet soda. All of those things are okay, we just need to understand how that fits into your life and is it in line with your goals. If it is, then it is, and just let it go.

Otherwise, you just spend all of your free mental space worried about food, and food is not something you can avoid. You have to have it every day to live. So you're gonna have to shift that mindset so that you can be successful.
"I think the way to make a change last is that it can't be extreme."
I think the way to make a change last is that it can't be extreme. That is the number one thing. If you're doing something, and it's really taxing and really draining, like these people who work out two times a day, two hours every time. There's no way that's gonna stick. First of all, it's taxing on your body, and mentally, you have to get up every single day knowing I have to do two hours of cardio every single day. What if it's raining? What if you're tired? What if you have a cold?

One of my friends is in AA and she says, "I'm not saying that I'm never going to drink again. I'm just saying I'm not drinking for right now. And that's a way to help this be a long lasting change for me." And so I think you have to think that same way.

ANSER: How can people support one another on their health journeys?
VR: I believe that everybody feels some kind of way about their weight, about how they appear to others. I'm not so judgy. And I think that same way about food. You have to give yourself a little bit of leeway. Because we're all trying to figure this whole thing out. We've all been inside for nine months, we don't even know what's up and what's down!

So if you're on a weight loss journey, or a health journey, or whatever that journey looks like, it's okay. However you want to execute it is okay. Reaching out to someone like me, a registered dietitian, is always going to be helpful because you're going to have an actual human being who has credentials that can help navigate you through that. But that's okay if you don't want to reach out to a dietitian. You could use a book. So many people have success off of a book. If you're self motivated, that's a great place for you to just do whatever makes you feel good.

"You're not a bad person. If you are 20 pounds overweight, you're not a bad person. If you're 10 pounds underweight, and you're not a bad person. If you think about food a lot, and what to eat, when to eat it, those are all pretty normal things."

If it doesn't bring you joy, if it gives you anxiety, if it makes you stressed out, don't do it. That's the biggest takeaway. You're not a bad person. If you are 20 pounds overweight, you're not a bad person. If you're 10 pounds underweight, you're not a bad person. If you think about food a lot, and what to eat, when to eat it, those are all pretty normal things that a lot of people are struggling with. And you'd be surprised.

So I always encourage people to like, be as open and honest as I am, if you can, because the more you talk, the more you will find out that other people share that same experience and you could have somebody that can help support you.

ANSER: Where can people find you?
VR: If you want to talk to me more, you can find me at Culina Health or @vanessarissettord. I'm always giving recipes and tips and pictures and videos of my new dog. So come see me!