Ask the Expert, Mary Vance

Second in my Kitchen Table Conversation series, I talk to Mary Vance, a certified Holistic Nutritionist. I am so excited to be featuring Mary on the blog!! I first heard her wonderful advice on Laura McKowen and Holly Whitaker’s podcast, HOME, about nutrition in recovery (Link Here) and just had to ask her more questions. I think what she has to say is invaluable.

A certified holistic nutritionist practicing in the San Francisco bay area; Mary works with clients privately and leads workshops and webinars to spread the good word about real food and holistic health–all over the world! She has worked with some wonderful mentors along the way, including Dr Ed Bauman and functional medicine practitioner Dr Daniel Kalish. Her philosophy is simple: eat real food! Functional holistic nutrition addresses the whole person by determining and addressing the underlying causes of your health conditions rather than simply addressing the symptoms.


Kitchen Table Conversation

Hi Mary, thank you so much for taking the time to give us an insight into holistic nutrition. In the UK, as with the US, obesity is an epidemic but we’re still focusing on unsustainable weight loss plans and not really addressing the body as a whole, including the physiological and emotional behavioural factors involved in disordered eating. In particular, we’re interested in learning more about the under-represented correlation between addiction and nutrition.

What is Holistic Nutrition?

Liv: What inspired you to train in holistic nutrition?

Mary: My story and the reason I got into holistic nutrition is explained in detail here. The short answer is that I realized how the body is capable of healing when provided with the right raw materials (food, healthy lifestyle) and that coventional medicine seeks to only cover up symptoms instead of addressing the underlying causes of health issues. Holistic healing addresses the whole person and the interactive body systems together to achieve balance.

Liv: Can you explain more about how holistic nutrition differs from the traditional ‘diet’?
Mary: The “Standard American Diet” pyramid we have in the U.S. includes an emphasis on many refined grain-based products and low fat dairy, which are part of the problem. 

We tend toward refined and processed convenience foods because they’re fast and tasty, but these foods are high in sugar and have been stripped of the essential nutrients we need to thrive. Holistic nutrition places an emphasis on whole foods that haven’t been adulterated or refined; they’re to be consumed as nature intended, with no additives or added sugars. One ingredient foods: the food itself!

Liv: I recently listened to Holly & Laura’s podcast, HOME, where you discussed Nutrition in Recovery (30 December 2015) – link here – can you explain what some of the issues people in recovery face in relation to their nutrition, and how that affects them holistically?

Mary: People in recovery have often neglected nutritional needs and are facing deficiencies that may have even been a contributing factor in alcohol abuse. They may also have underlying hypoglycemia and brain chemistry imbalances. A big issue is addiction transfer, where they may crave sugar or coffee or other substances when they ditch alcohol, because the brain is still craving a substance that will make up for a lack in certain brain chemicals. I explain the connection between sugar cravings and recovery in particular in a guest post I wrote for Holly’s blog.

Advice on Caffeine

Liv: You also talk about caffeine metabolism, can you explain more about that? What advice would you give to people in recovery regarding caffeine?


Mary: Caffeine affects everyone differently, and about 50% of us lack an enzyme needed to metabolize caffeine effectively. If you struggle with anxiety or insomnia, coffee or too much caffeine is definitely not for you (tea is a much better choice, as it contains calming L-theanine). If even a little coffee jacks you up, you’re probably one of the 50% that doesn’t reap the health benefits coffee may provide. In the other 50%, it can actually have some health benefits.

Advice on Sugar

602405469Liv: A particularly popular subject at the moment is sugar, and its negative impacts on your body; is there evidence to suggest that recovering addicts might be sensitive to sugar?

Mary: Studies have shown that up to 95% of alcoholics struggle with hypoglycemia. I find that most people with whom I work who have binge drinking issues struggle with sugar sensitivity and unstable blood sugar levels, and these folks do best on a sugar and grain free diet, focusing on protein, vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats predominantly.

Nutritional Needs in Recovery

Liv: Is there evidence to suggest that recovering women may have different nutritional needs to recovering men?

Mary: Yes, women and men have different nutritional needs regardless of recovery. Women have sensitive endocrine systems and are also more affected by alcohol. This means women’s hormones can take more of a hit, so supporting the adrenals, thyroid, and female hormones in recovery will help balance the body and brain chemistry.

Liv: People in recovery (and those not) often experience low energy, difficulty sleeping and low mood; what advice would you give to them in terms of their nutrition?

Mary: Focusing on sleep is critical. Try and get 8 hours. Follow the sleep hygiene tips I outline here. Adrenal and blood sugar support may be necessary. Eating in regular intervals and getting enough protein and healthy fat at breakfast and lunch in particular is helpful.


Liv: What is your view on organic vs non-organic foods?

Mary: I recommend eating organic whenever possible, especially meat, which has added hormones and antibiotics. Everyone is on a budget, so I recommend buying the “dirty dozen” organic whenever possible: 

Typically fruits with peels (citrus, avocado) are ok to buy non-organic. Fruits with thin skins (berries) and leafy greens seem to contain higher levels of pesticide, so best to buy those organic.

Liv: Which foods would you recommend avoiding for those struggling with food addiction and trying to lose weight?

Mary: This depends on the person. There is never a one size fits all approach with diet. Everyone has different triggers based on their health history and physiology. Typically everyone benefits from reducing or eliminating sugar, white flour, and processed/refined foods. And soda is an absolute no!

Liv: It is often recommended to recovering alcoholics to eat sugar; is this a helpful or harmful strategy – what is your view?

Mary: I don’t recommend this approach; it’s like throwing gasoline on a fire. As mentioned, most alcoholics have issues with blood sugar regulation and struggle with sugar cravings. Increasing sugar consumption makes this worse and sets them up for weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes, inflammation, mood swings, and even cardiovascular disease.

Liv: For those with a sweet tooth, what foods would you recommend as a healthy alternative to chocolate and sugary drinks?

Mary: Dark chocolate (70% or higher) is a super food and is a wonderful treat. I don’t recommend milk chocolate, as it’s high in sugar and contains dairy. There are so many options available for grain free baking including almond and coconut flours that make great healthy treats without refined ingredients. You can add cacao powder or dark chocolate. I recommend tea and kombucha (in most cases; kombucha doesn’t work for everyone) and mineral water with lemon or lime as fun beverage options. Plenty of water, of course.

 Top 5 Tools

Liv: What would you describe as your top five tips to those in recovery, wanting to embark on a healthier approach to their nutrition?

Mary: 1. Sleep. Sleep is the most important.
2. eat in regular intervals for stable blood sugar.
3. don’t skip breakfast! If you can only put energy into making 1 meal good, breakfast is it. Try to get a healthy protein and good fat. Here are my suggestions:
4. drink plenty of water and teas—herbal and green teas have amazing health benefits.
5. do some type of movement every day, whether it’s 20 minutes of yoga, a walk, or even gardening.

Bonus: meditation.

Thank you for taking part in Kitchen Table Conversations.