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Auburn alumna committed to helping others overcome eating disorders through nutrition therapy

Published: January 24, 2022
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Helping others has become a life’s mission for Auburn University alumna Kerry McCarthy.

The 2012 graduate is making a difference in her community of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, through the nutrition therapy and wellness group Namaste Nourished. McCarthy, who earned a degree in nutrition and dietetics from Auburn’s College of Human Sciences, is dedicated to helping people overcome eating disorders to find balance and happiness in their lives.

Through Namaste Nourished, McCarthy and her colleagues provide nutrition therapy and body image work to those in need. Whether it’s anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, negative body image or a host of other disorders, McCarthy’s group practice helps individuals through their personal battles to find a path to a positive mental and physical health.

For McCarthy, a certified eating disorders registered dietitian, her career is a labor of love inspired by the realization that millions of Americans struggle with eating disorders of varying kinds.

“It’s way more common than people know,” said McCarthy, a licensed and registered dietitian and nutritionist. “Food is so central to connection with other people, and when you see people be able to get that control back, it’s so cool. You’re not just helping them with their relationship with food, it’s cascading into all other areas of their life.”

Namaste Nourished works with area therapists, psychologists, treatment centers and outreach professionals in a comprehensive approach to treatment. By combining nutrition and wellness therapy with mental health treatment, McCarthy and her collaborators can help clients address their eating issues from multiple angles.

“With eating disorders, it’s very multidisciplinary, and there’s a lot of collaboration that goes on in the treatment of eating disorders,” said McCarthy, who has worked hard to increase her mental health therapy knowledge through continuing education sessions and partnerships with therapists. “When we’re doing this work, we’re literally changing the structure of someone’s brain. We’re creating new patterns and new neural pathways in the brain, and just knowing you’re helping someone do that is really nice. It creates that sustainable change.

“We have a team, and the biggest players on the team are always going to be the dietitians and therapists. That can be licensed clinical social workers, licensed mental health counselors or psychologists. We are the main trio, and then depending on the client’s circumstances, they could potentially have a psychiatrist or medical doctor involved and family support.”

McCarthy’s team provides tailored treatment plans that are specific to the individual since everyone has varying needs, strengths, weaknesses and goals for their recovery.

“Everyone’s treatment is so different, because everyone’s story is so different,” McCarthy said. “There’s so many different reasons why we eat food, and that’s something I talk about with my clients. It’s so layered, and we look at whether the disorder came about because of trauma, or if it came up because of unhelpful language and behaviors around food in their household or they have a genetic component that just causes the eating disorder. The care and treatment plan becomes so individualized.”

Finding her passion project

After graduating from Auburn, McCarthy interned with Atlanta area sports dietitian Page Love and learned a great deal about eating disorders.

“When I was interning with Page, it sparked a personal interest for me. I really saw firsthand how deeply people with eating disorders suffer,” she said. “I gave different areas of the field a chance when I was interning, but the counseling aspect of eating disorders just hit me differently.

“Since you are such a key component in someone’s treatment as a dietitian, it’s not always that way for dietitians in other areas of the field. To play such an integral role in someone’s recovery of their life, both physically and emotionally, it feels really nice and is rewarding.”

Reconnecting with the body

One of the main themes Namaste Nourished stresses is changing the dialogue about how food and dieting is viewed by their clients. Rather than label foods a certain way or focus on deprivation tactics common to most diet plans, McCarthy and her partners work to shift their clients’ mentality to a more positive place.

“Our society loves to be very black and white or all or nothing about things, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” McCarthy said. “So, even when I’m talking to people who don’t have eating disorders, my food philosophy doesn’t change. If we’re talking about creating a healthier lifestyle, it feels better to talk about how I can incorporate more fruits and vegetables, more fiber or more water into my diet, rather than saying, ‘What do I need to eliminate?’

“We don’t like when things are taken away from us, because it doesn’t feel good. So, if we’re talking about what we can add in, that feels a lot better, and I think just hits the brain a little differently. Also, the foods that folks tend to try to eliminate are typically foods that bring them joy, which is valuable for our emotional well-being.”

That mentality shift can help a person reconnect their brains and bodies, setting the stage for improved mental and physical health.

“In our society, we praise busyness and people being so busy where they say, ‘Oh, I’ve been so busy, I haven’t eaten anything all day.’ And for some reason, we praise that for being a good thing. It’s actually not a good thing, and you’re probably disconnected to your body and maybe the work you’ve been doing all day could have been done way more efficiently if you had eaten something.

“Even dieting—and I’m talking about fad diets—is a disconnection with the body. Those are disorder eating patterns, and then you have eating disorders that are a mental health diagnosis where there’s a much deeper-rooted factor other than just the manipulation of the food to change the body.”

McCarthy also said avoiding labeling foods as “good” or “bad” should be avoided.

“We start to talk about why it’s important to drop the labels where we say, ‘This is a good food. This is a bad food. This is healthy. This is unhealthy,’” she said. “What that does is it just sets up a lot of mental gymnastics in our heads, and it forms that disconnection from the body. I like to talk about the philosophy of ‘all foods fit.’

“Secondly, what we want to try to do is create some kind of consistent eating pattern. The client and I will talk about different meals and will go into the science a little bit and talk about how combining certain kinds of foods is going to be helpful in regulating blood sugar and hunger.”

Changing the dialogue

Shifting the dialogue and one’s mindset can help reverse the negative patterns that are central to eating disorders. That can result in a person regulating their bodies, an achievement that can lead to better results with mental health professionals.

“It gives the therapist a chance to have someone who’s nourished and who has a nourished brain be able to start the therapeutic work,” McCarthy said. “We do certain goal setting around food, challenge certain belief systems, certain fears. So, even beginning to invite those signals back in and the connection to those signals, that’s positive work that we do.

“For people who really feel strongly in a negative way about their bodies, connecting to the body can feel very scary. So, we really have to have that strong rapport and build some trust before we even make some changes with their food.”

Namaste Nourished also works with clients looking to make a positive and proactive life change by committing themselves to a healthier relationship with food.

“Typically, when we hear that someone wants to make lifestyle changes, it means they want to lose weight,” McCarthy said. “When I talk to people who have that as a goal, I tell them I will never intentionally put someone on a plan of losing weight, because studies show that it’s not a sustainable goal to make. I will say that we’re going to focus on their behaviors, and one of three things will happen—they’ll either gain weight, they’ll lose weight or their weight will stay the same.

“Whatever happens, it’s not going to be because we’re trying to change their weight. We’re trying to focus on behaviors and behavior changes. For some reason, we always give weight loss the credit for someone improving their health, when really it’s the behavior changes they’ve been making. Those are the things that deserve the applause, not the decrease in weight.”

McCarthy—who celebrated the birth of her first child, Ainsley, with husband, Randy, on Dec. 2—said the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the prevalence of eating disorders. That has made her work more important than ever before.

“We’ve definitely seen a big increase in either the onset of eating disorders or someone relapsing into their eating disorder because of the pandemic,” McCarthy said. “Throughout this hard time, it’s been nice to help people shift their coping skills and help in their recovery.”

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