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Practice Like You Preach!

Irene is Founder and CEO of Pace Nutrition, where she specializes in helping people understand what makes food challenging to them and solve it. Her own challenges with food inspired her deep dive into the relationship we have with food, the science of eating behavior, and get to the root of what drives smart people to eat in impulsive ways. Irene is also the author of “Eat like You Teach,” an Amazon best seller that helps healthcare professionals struggling with food to find the path out.


In this episode of TechTalk Podcast, Brad Cost, Dr. Jay Greenstein, and Irene Pace sit down to discuss:

 

  • Irene's personal discovery that led her on this path of helping others.

  • Our pattern based nervous systems and basic steps to reshape behavior.

  • A case study on a patient to allow us a closer look & deeper understanding.


SHOW NOTES:


3:25 – Existing in a pile of sprinkles to becoming CEO of Pace Nutrition. "My backstory, as so many of us who are founders of companies that want to make change, comes from a personal story of my own. I was working as a registered dietitian in more traditional practice places, like hospital and clinics, and it was a period of my life that I had a lot of personal challenges going on and I found myself turning to food. It was in a moment I feel like I lost myself a little bit. I was on a car drive home from a friend's house and I made three stops at two donut shops and one gas station, managing to consume six donuts and two Haagen-Dazs bars in the span of 40 minutes. I collapsed in this pile of sprinkles crying my eyes out asking, “what is going on here? If this is about knowing what to do, I wouldn't be here because I spend my days helping people not do exactly what I just found myself doing.” That was one of those turning points that really had the science side of me wanting to go on a deep dive. It's not about just knowing what to eat or we wouldn't even have the diet industry we have right now. There are tons of smart, smart people that know a lot about food and how to look after their body who land in trouble with eating this way. That was the starting point that had me turn in the direction I work in now."


5:17 – Following the patterns in both research and past patients. "In the personal side of my life, I was doing some work with a therapist and started going deep into trauma work, trauma healing, and reading the literature on that to understand what happens to a person's body as an adult when you've experienced adversity or challenging things in your childhood. I started to see all these dots connecting to patients I had worked with over the years, and I could see what I was reading in this research in the behaviors that I saw in them. When I pulled those threads and started following that path, it took me to the world of our nervous system and something called Polyvagal Theory. This is the way we look to understand what drives the behaviors we have, especially when our body perceives threat of some sort. Food is just one of those things that we turn to for all kinds of reasons that make sense."


6:35 – Meat suits that serve as our Earthly vehicle. "I often say we are meat suits full of nerves. These are our earthly vehicles. The main operating system that drives the behavior and the way we engage with the world is the nervous system. Yet here we are with little to no knowledge, owner's manual, or instruction about how this system works. The behaviors we have can feel really chaotic and unpredictable until you understand that some of these things are actually predictable."


8:05 – Neuroception, or the human spidey sense. "This is a case study about a client I worked with - we'll call him Bill. He's a 37-year-old founder who had just made a big exit from his company. He knew his eating was hurting him, but after years of getting away with clean blood work, he'd finally been diagnosed with high cholesterol, pre-diabetes, his joints ached, and his energy and libido had tanked. He hadn't weighed himself in months, but from the fit of clothes, he could tell that the pounds were just continuing to come on. He worked really hard to earn himself the freedom of time and money by making a success on the work side. However, he wasn't being able to enjoy that because he didn't have the energy, couldn't engage with his kids the way he wanted to, and found himself saying no to trips with his buddies that involve being active because he couldn't keep up anymore. His confidence really started to take a dive, which had him saying no to business opportunities and things that he potentially would have said yes to before. This whole package had him hire trainers and coaches to give himself the best advice he possibly could, yet he would find himself ordering DoorDash while he had a fresh made salad matched to his macros sitting in the fridge just a few feet away. He couldn't do it. It was a mind-boggling thing for him, he would ask himself, “how could this be? I'm smarter than this. I know what to do. How is it that I'm here scrolling again, ordering a burger?” When we got on the call, I would look at this powerful, successful 300-pound man and he looked back at me through the Zoom screen, deflated and childlike. That's a nervous system story right there. It's valuable to keep in mind we’re having a conversation right now with words, but in the background, our nervous systems are also having a conversation. Our systems are looking at the world around us, reading inside of our bodies and between nervous systems relationally figuring out if we’re welcomed or not. The term for this is something called Neuroception, which you can think of it like a spidey sense."


16:30 – Even eating has a neurophysiological story. "You two are talking about getting together to eat, but we don't invite people over to digest, right? We invite them over to eat. There's a neurophysiological story under why we do that and part of it has to do with where the ventral branch of the vagus nerve lives in our face. When you are chewing food, you're activating or stimulating the nerves that are part of the face there and that branch is our social engagement system that helps us feel calm, connected and open to engage with the people around us. With Bill, I set up a little experiment to see what's going. Bill's experiment was to eat one leaf of spinach from the salad, then eat anything else he wanted. He chuckled at this and perhaps questioned his decision to hire me, but he played along. Two days later, I got a text from Bill, and it said, “having a harder time than I would think was possible with this one piece of spinach.”'


19:22 - Nervous systems are patterned-based. "I believe every behavior is an attempt to solve a problem, even if it logically seems to not be the best solution. It's grounded in something driven by our nervous system. At the end of the day, our nervous system orients itself towards feeling safe or threatened. I encourage people to think of it like you have a catalog of experience that you've amassed over the course of your lifetime. The beauty and hopefulness of a nervous system approach is that your nervous system learns to be patterned based on experience and continues to be patterned based on experience. Even those really old experiences that have been around a really long time can be re-patterned by introducing new experiences of those same things at any point in your life."


22:21 – Bill and his business relationships changed his food patterns. "Sometimes it is related to the food itself or the history with that particular food. Sometimes, like in Bill's case, it was a little broader than that. When we did this exploring, we really discovered Bill’s brain made a critical, but potentially lethal error by gauging that the salad was dangerous and summoned a defense response in his system to protect him. In that moment, the reason he was grabbing the phone to order a burger was because his body was mounting this defense under his level of awareness that had him freeze up and not go for the salad. When we have those moments where we freeze or choose our wants over our needs, I invite you to look at them closely because that's where we find the juicy good stuff. When we unpack this specifically for Bill, it was like when he sat down to have healthy foods, his body went into this like neurophysiological crisis, locked him up and had him choosing the less healthy foods. In order to make the sustainable changes for anyone, we need to make it possible for his brain to reevaluate the situation and determine more accurately what is dangerous. When we dug this apart for Bill, we found that his business was built on relationships and a lot of those relationships happened at the bar or over a dinner table. The words that came out of his mouth when we started to explore this were, “I can't be the salad guy, right? It's not the salad guy who's making the deals.” His nervous system is saying, “I'm going to be rejected or bumped out of the tribe if I'm the salad guy and everyone else is doing beer and wings.” Then, it became his livelihood. There's always something under the surface, when we peel back the layers, that is a logical defense."


30:29 – Three steps to repattern your nervous system.

  1. "I'll give you three quick steps that start you on the path of being able to introduce new experiences to your nervous system to repattern past experiences that shaped the way you respond to the world. The first step is called Greet the Pull, where you recognize you're in that moment of either being stuck or in conflict/resistance and simply saying hello. You're going to acknowledge your resistance to the spinach or going for the burger on DoorDash. With that energy, we're turning ourselves away from what we might historically do in that moment, which is more like asking yourself what's wrong with you. As soon as we engage in that energy, we're feeding back our nervous system more cues of threat. If I believe I'm broken, incapable and unable to do this thing, my body puts me into a greater defense mode because now I'm even more vulnerable. If we can add the lightness with acknowledgement, we can just spend a little time together and shifted the energy to engage what's going on."

  2. "Second, we get curious. With this, I want you to think about shifting gears on a manual transmission. Now, go into curiosity mode intentionally because particular areas of the brain activate with curiosity. We get the learning reward, and memory centers to turn on when we're in a state of curiosity. The other thing that magically happens is criticism and judgment are harder to have sit alongside curiosity. All the parts of yourself that would beat yourself up for ordering the burger don't live in a space of curiosity. Now, I'm asking questions to try to explore and discover what's underneath the resistance that's going on here. A place to start exploring is to ask yourself, what might be the threat under here? I'm going to look at it from the lens that I know my nervous system is locking me up or having me choose these things under my level of consciousness because it determines something to be a threat. Look for a physical threat. Is there like a social or interpersonal threat, like there was for Bill? Is there an existential threat? Dig around a little bit there."

  3. "The last piece is a really important one: give permission. This can feel a little frightening because I have clients say, “do you know who you're giving permission to? I'm the one who got me here. I'm going to wind up one thousand pounds in a moomoo on the sofa eating bonbons if I take the reins off of this thing.” Permission is key because our nervous system perceives feeling trapped and without choice as a threat. So many times, with diet and trying to change things, we make an ultimatum for ourselves. When we have that trapped energy, we're now feeding ourselves back in the cycle of threat and regulating the thing that's driving us to the food in the first place. Giving permission looks like I can eat the food. I'm a grown adult and if I want to have the food, I can have the food. Allow yourself to all the possibilities. A way to get at this is to ask yourself, “what's the kindest, most loving thing for me to do for myself right now?” Sometimes, the level of pain or conflict you're experiencing is so high that the kindest thing for you to do is eat the burger and get on with your day. Sometimes, you can be with the discomfort and experiment. Those are the three steps in a really quick nutshell, but that's how we start to move our way to new patterns in our nervous system."


39:24 - Lemon meringue pie! "I have a lemon meringue pie and movie night. I literally grab the whole pie, a spoon, and a comforter, sit on the sofa, and put on a movie. I fricking love lemon meringue pie. It used to be that I would eat the whole pie, cry in tears of shame and guilt, and question what kind of nutritionist I am. Now, I oftentimes have a few bites and that's enough, but I'm just giving myself full permission to enjoy something like that."


41:23 - I've got to do a lot of deprogramming. "On my client success path, almost all clients hit this moment. I call it the one slice of pizza moment, because inevitably, I know they've hit a turning point when they come on our community calls and say, “the win I'm celebrating is that I ordered pizza last night, had one piece and I enjoyed the heck out of it, but I normally would eat more!” They had this realization that walking through the Greet the Pull method landed them realizing they can have one piece, enjoy it and not feel like they have to consume the rest of it. That moment is when the reprogramming is starting to take place."


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