EP. 5 - Christina Vittas - How I Create Perfect Diet for Your Gut Health | Brought to you by Mallama
Who is Christina Vittas?
Christina is a nutritionist and health coach trained in functional medicine, an evidence-based, personalized approach to healthcare that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. She graduated summa cum laude (top 1%) and Phi Beta Kappa from New York University (NYU) with a B.A. in economics and business and holds a Master’s of Science in nutrition and integrative health from the Maryland University of Integrative Health. She is also a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Health, where she became certified as a holistic health coach and the School of Applied Functional Medicine.
Christina helps people improve their physical and emotional health using a multi-pronged approach that considers each individual's unique health history, genetic makeup, diet, environment, and lifestyle. She has extensive clinical experience in helping people heal from anxiety, depression, disordered eating, autoimmune disease, hormonal imbalances, insomnia, and digestive conditions. She has lectured on topics in health and wellness at companies such as Facebook and currently serves as the Lead Health Coach at Parsley Health, a primary care medical practice with a whole-body approach, combining nutrition, lifestyle, and cutting-edge medical testing.
An avid traveler, she has visited more than 85 countries across 6 continents.
Connect with Christina Vittas
Instagram: @Christina Vittas
If You Enjoyed This Episode, We Recommend we Check out, Our episode with Dr. T where we discuss Functional Medicine.
00:00:24] Everyone welcome to take care. Today's guest has a master's of science in nutrition and integrative health from NYU. And she is the lead coach at parsley health, an avid world traveler in over 80 countries. Welcome, Christina. Thanks for having me. So I'd like to start the conversation a little bit by getting people to let you know your background a little bit.
[00:00:46] So if you could describe your background and what led you to get into nutrition and integrative health. Sure. Well, I actually career changed into the whole wellness world. So I studied business and economics and undergrad. And my first job out of college was in [00:01:00] finance. I knew on day one that it was not for me.
[00:01:03] So I was kind of trying to figure out what to do with my life and I always love nutrition and psychology. And while I was figuring out my next steps, I ended up enrolling in something called , which is the Institute for integrative nutrition. And I just loved it. I mean, I really, really loved it. I decided after that to pursue my master's degree.
[00:01:21] And clinical nutrition and integrative health. And then I've been working in the functional medicine space ever since. And then what's really joined the functional medicine side of the practice. So a lot of my master's degree was actually in, it was kind of function medicine was interwoven into it. So what I ended up pursuing was this more holistic view of of how the body works.
[00:01:42] So if you look at modern medicine right now, we see the body is very compartmentalized. So if you have a heart issue, you're going to cardiologist. If you have a gut issue, you're going to a GI doctor. What I loved about my master's is it really taught us to look at the body as a whole, and that's one of the tenants of functional medicine.
[00:01:57] It's, we're looking at everyone holistically, understanding that [00:02:00] what's going on in one system of their body. It's not only there. Right. And it affects every other part of their overall health and wellness and happiness. It's all connected. So I just, that really resonated with me and I really, I love that approach and I mean, it was just a natural progression to continue practicing and thinking in that way.
[00:02:16] Thank you for breaking that down. What does a holistic healthy lifestyle look like in your words? I think it really boils down to having awareness of your physical and mental health and then curating your behavior to be. At least reasonably supportive of both of those. So in practice, that really means managing stress, eating at least a reasonably healthy diet, prioritizing sleep to some extent.
[00:02:38] And then I'd argue most importantly, that having a sense of purpose and carving out time to really engage in the things that you feel passionate about. I think that's the most important part of mental health and fulfillment. So all of these collectively, I think you end up with a really beautiful, healthy lifestyle.
[00:02:52] Yeah, I think this podcast and the branded behind it, I mean, that's just kind of what we fully believe. So definitely favor [00:03:00] that. And it's made massive changes in my life when I started to incorporate this myself. So, but I'd like to take the conversation to just, you know, you mentioned on your website that you visited over 80 countries, lived in seven countries as well.
[00:03:13] What is it like to live in multiple different countries and is there any commonalities between all the places you lived. Well, it's really cool and interesting. I just think it's really a blessing to have been able to experience so many different cultures and landscapes and languages. All of them have small, idiosyncratic differences.
[00:03:31] But what I've really learned in traveling in and living in so many different places is that people are fundamentally the same. Everyone wants safety, security, love, companionship, happiness, like we all want the same things. So there are these small cultural differences. But I honestly found that it's like people are just a lot more similar than you realize.
[00:03:49] That's great to hear. And what, where in particular did you end up living? So I've lived in, let's see if I can get this right, that U S which is where I live now. I lived in France, Greece, [00:04:00] England, Ireland, Australia, and Austria. Nice. I've actually been to, out of the three, it's, so I've actually lived in Australia as well as the U S so my goodness, I didn't know that we have to discuss later.
[00:04:12] Yeah. Actually, a lot of my family's in Australia, so I go there often. How cool. I didn't know that. Yeah. So, yeah, let's you just bring the conversation back to nutrition and if you could describe what good nutrition is and what types of food that incorporates. So the fundamentals of good nutrition are pretty much the same.
[00:04:30] There's that author Michael Pollan, I think he said it best when he said eat real food, not too much. Mostly plants. So eating real, unprocessed food food in its whole form, it really gets you most of the words way there. So the issue that most people have is they're eating too many of these packaged, processed foods, and that's not really the foundation for a healthy diet overall.
[00:04:50] And then hydrating. Well, that's really important. Our body is made up of about 60% water. So we need it for pretty much every single process, and if we're even 1% dehydrated, our brain [00:05:00] actually doesn't function as well as it otherwise could. So hydrating, keeping blood sugar stable is another foundational element of good nutrition.
[00:05:07] What I always tell clients is you want most of your meals, and I say most because no one's perfect, like let's just throw out the whole idea of a perfect diet, but most of your meals, you want them to have. Protein, a source of healthy fat and fiber. And so if you have all three of those things, you're covering your macronutrient bases, you're giving your body pretty much what it needs, and you're keeping your blood sugar nice and stable.
[00:05:30] And then one other part would be having a good amount of variety in the diet because every single food has a different nutritional profile. And so it's good to get a lot of exposure to different things. So one area where people. Run into some issues when they're trying to eat healthy is I'll just get the exact same thing day in, day out.
[00:05:46] Whereas you're really better off eating some variety. Some days there's broccoli, some days it's asparagus, some days it's something else. Yeah. I think that's something that, so just so the audience knows, I've been working with Christina for over two years now. She's been made a world of difference to [00:06:00] me, but that exact same thing as you just mentioned, having the same meal repeatedly over a period of time was one of the things I struggled with, and so we started to incorporate.
[00:06:08] Different types of food groups through different phytonutrients. Maybe you can describe different phytonutrients and different groups of foods as well. Sure. So phytonutrients, just so people know, they're components of plants that contribute to the plants color to the nutritional profile, to the taste and the smell.
[00:06:24] They're basically giving the plant certain characteristics. And what we've seen is that people who eat higher amounts of phytonutrients have lower rates of disease, and that's pretty much across the board. As far as groups. They're six, I believe. So we look at them in terms of color actually, which makes it really easy to identify them.
[00:06:40] So the first group would be red. The second group is orange. Then we have yellow, we have green, we have blue slash. Purple, so that's one group, blue slash, purple, and then white slat and would be another group. Ideally we're eating foods from every single group of color every single day, and that's what ensures that we're getting that varied exposure to nutrients.
[00:06:59] When you're [00:07:00] deciding to, like you said, protein, fiber and high quality fat. Yeah. There's so many different types of diets out there, so how does somebody find maybe the right diet for them in particular? Is there any guidance into incorporating everything. Totally. So the fundamentals that we talked about before, like hydrating, while eating real food, that kind of thing, it gets you most of the way there, regardless of who you are.
[00:07:21] But then every single person is different, right? So what's optimally healthy for you is going to be different than what's optimally healthy for me, just because we have different biochemistry's, we maybe are in different stages of life. Even like using myself as an example. What is optimally healthy for me today is going to be different than what's optimally healthy for me 40 years down the line if I'm menopausal.
[00:07:40] So where you want, where you really can find the most guidance for yourself personally, where you can really tune into the nuances of what makes a good diet for you is by listening to your body. So you really want to notice when you feel well, I notice when you don't and you try to find patterns and then you ultimately let that guide your eating.
[00:07:58] Most people, if [00:08:00] they really tune in, they'll notice that they don't feel well when they eat a lot of sugar, or maybe they don't feel well when they're eating a super heavy meal. So it's really just about listening to your body and trying to figure out what's working for you and what isn't. And for people who have no idea what I'm talking about, when I say, listen to your body.
[00:08:15] That's where I think experimentation really can come in. So it try different things and just see how you feel. Maybe you're starting from a place of the standard American diet and the biggest bang for buck is just going to be adding a vegetable with every single meal. Try doing that. See if you feel better.
[00:08:29] If you feel better, great. We can keep moving in that direction. Or you might say, I want to try cutting out dairy because I suspect that it's upsetting me and you can try cutting it out, and if you feel better, then that's your body's way of communicating to you that, yes, this is good for us. Yeah, and I think also another thing that, at least for myself, that helped, along with all the experimentation and trying different things, was actually also Mt monitoring times of day that I'm actually having certain meals.
[00:08:54] When I had a heavier meal at night, I ended up not having as productive of the day. The next day I felt [00:09:00] more sluggish the next day. So I think also time of day, at least for me, it made a big difference as well. Yeah, for sure. And you see, so people actually have a genetic component that determines their chronobiology meeting, whether they're more like a morning person or more of a night owl or whatever else.
[00:09:17] And so some people, like morning people tend to do better eating a heavier meal earlier on in the day night owl sometimes do better eating a little bit heavier later on in the day. The point I'm making here is that it's really, it's different for everyone. So, and what works for our best friend isn't necessarily what's gonna work so well for you, which is why that whole idea of just kind of like observing how you're feeling.
[00:09:36] Just be this nonjudgmental observer of how your body feels and how much brain clarity you have, how much energy you have, how motivated you feel. All of these are really good little like feedback loops that you can track ultimately to see is this working for me or is this not? And then the other thing that I think can be helpful.
[00:09:53] Sometimes people just want a little bit more structure. Some of this can sound, if you don't have a lot of experience with a diet, this [00:10:00] whole idea of like listening to your body, it can sound kind of, it can sound kind of challenging, quite frankly. So this is where something like an elimination diet or a modified elimination diet can help because it can give you a little bit more real data as to what's working and what isn't.
[00:10:12] That's an elimination diet is where you remove all of the major food allergens and you remove them for a few weeks typically, and then you add them back in one by one and you just monitor how you feel, what you're really looking for. I was like, are we sergeants and they kind of symptom that you had previously.
[00:10:28] So for a lot of people that they notice that maybe they have, let's say they had a lot of brain fog or digestive issues, and then they go on an elimination diet and they feel a lot better and they add back. Dairy, and suddenly those digestive issues come back and then they go, okay, I get it. It's not working for me.
[00:10:44] Or maybe you add something back and you feel exactly the same. Okay. Then that would be a food group that that seems to be working really well with your body. And is there a resource out there that somebody can go look at to understand how to do this the correct way and what things to eliminate? Yeah, so one I [00:11:00] like that's just very well presented with a lot of resources would be whole 30 it's more extreme, like you're eliminating a bunch of different food groups, but it's just really easy to Google, for example, where you can just Google a whole 30 and you'd have a good idea, but even Googling functional medicine elimination diet, it'll give you all of the resources that you need.
[00:11:18] And for people who feel overwhelmed by the number of foods being eliminated, you could always pick one or two. Like often with clients, we'll just say, why don't we try pulling out gluten and dairy and let's observe how you're feeling. And for some people, that's enough. They don't actually need to do any further exploration.
[00:11:32] But for some people, they might still have some symptoms that are lingering and we might notice that. Okay. It also makes sense for us to take some other foods out and see. And is there any particular things that you would recommend in terms of foods to eat, like super foods or anything else to eat on a regular basis?
[00:11:47] It's a good question. I think of super foods really as like the unsung heroes. It's, it's less about the really exotic superfoods like E and whatever else [00:12:00] is the latest buzz in the health world. It's really, the superfoods are really more just like. Run of the mill of veggies, broccoli and amazing super food, cauliflower and amazing super food.
[00:12:10] I love concentrated sources of fiber. Things like flax seed or chia seed because most people don't eat anywhere close to enough fiber, and with flax and chia, adding them in, whether it's in a smoothie or in some other capacity, they really help to satiate you and stabilize your blood sugar. And then really it's about like just eat lots of color in the form of vegetables and fruits.
[00:12:29] Those are the best super foods. Yeah. I think it's the old adage of just kind of eating as many colors as possible on the plate though. Healthier usually it is. So totally. I think for a lot of diet, we overcomplicate it. Sometimes it's back to Michael Pollan. Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much. No, that's great.
[00:12:47] If I, so I like to transition to talking to other part, I guess, how nutrition affects, and that's your gut, right? How it affects your gut health and your, how important that is. So maybe you can just. Break that down a little bit. How important good [00:13:00] health is. Sure. So most people recognize the importance of gut health as far as digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
[00:13:07] And one thing I liked, it distinguishes a lot of people say you are what you eat, but in actuality you are what you absorb from what you eat. And so the state of your overall gut health actually affects what your body's absorbing. You might be eating the healthiest diet in the entire world. But your gut is a mess and you're not digesting or breaking your food down properly.
[00:13:26] And if that's the case, you're actually not assimilating all the nutrients in that beautiful food. So there's the digestion piece. But then another thing that a lot of people don't realize is that about 70% of your immune system resides in the gut tissue. So your immune system and your gut, they're separated by a lining that's one cell thick, which is basically nothing.
[00:13:43] So if your gut isn't functioning robust or well, your immune system also isn't going to be functioning as strongly as an otherwise. Could be. And then even more broadly, the microbes that make up our gut, and this is something called the microbiome. So the actual microbes that live in our gut, they can have a massive effect on our mood, [00:14:00] on how we think, on how we feel.
[00:14:02] I mean, pretty much on the entirety of our body. So Hippocrates, this is a common quote in the functional medicine world, but he said kazillion years ago, all disease begins in the gut. And that's something that I think is in many ways true. Yeah. I think now as modern sciences now looking into these new areas like gut health and the microbiome especially, yeah, it's a lot of what was sold when we were younger or older generations of people is now coming true.
[00:14:28] So I think that's definitely moving in that direction. Totally. So what are some signs that somebody could tell, like their microbiome or their gut health generally is out of whack? Like is there any particular things to notice? Any signs just in the day to day life that they could check? Yes. So some of them are the more obvious ones that you would associate with not such great gut health, meaning maybe you're feeling a digestive symptoms, so perhaps you're bloated always after you eat or you're getting heartburn or acid reflux.
[00:14:56] Or you're not moving your bowels comfortably. Let's say you're [00:15:00] constipated or you're on the other spectrum, you have diarrhea or really anything in between. So those would be certainly signs that your gut could use a little bit of work, but they can be broader. So skin issues, like if you have acne or eczema, psoriasis, really any of the issues of skin, they're often highly correlated with less going on in the gut.
[00:15:17] Things like depression or anxiety. So something I find really interesting is that if you look at a population of people who have IBS, irritable bowel syndrome, the rates of depression and anxiety are significantly higher in that population than in a population that doesn't have IBS. And. Now that's correlative, right?
[00:15:35] That's not like a causal thing, but what we've noticed, and certainly in my clinical practice, what I've noticed is that, yeah, rates of depression, anxiety are much higher, and people who have gut disturbances, and that's largely because of the effect that the microbiome has on our overall mood. Now, you could also argue that having any kind of symptom is going to impact your health, your mental health.
[00:15:56] And that's true too, but it's not only that, I like, there's actually a [00:16:00] physiological thing that's going on. Other stuff would be if you're getting sick all the time, you know, maybe you got sick four times last winter. That's a sign that we have some work to do on the immune system and on the gut itself.
[00:16:10] Or if you're someone who has an autoimmune disease that always has some kind of derivative in the gut, so it's like it's everything, which is such a weird, it's such a weird answer, but really most things are highly related to what's going on there. Just because your immune system is involved in everything that your body does.
[00:16:28] Yeah. No, I think it's definitely a highly important area, and now we're fighting out more and more what it's correlated to, but if somebody did notice that the signs were occurring, what are some steps that they can do to heal their gut that are simple steps or a protocol or something that they can start to try.
[00:16:45] Yeah. So first would be removing foods that don't really agree with you. So let's say you eat gluten. Every time you eat wheat, you feel super bloated and uncomfortable. Okay? So step one is let's remove that because it's kind of like a scab. If you [00:17:00] pick at a scab every single day, it's going to take a really, really long time to heal.
[00:17:04] But if you just stop picking at it and leaving it alone. Then it's going to heal a lot more quickly. So it's similar with the gut. You know, if you're constantly eating foods that really upset your digestion, it's hard for the gut to actually make any real progress as far as healing. So one is let's remove the stuff that just doesn't really sit well in your stomach.
[00:17:22] The second part is we actually want to reinoculate the gut with healthy microbes. And what that means is. Maybe taking a probiotic supplement or eating some fermented foods, things like kimchi or sauerkraut, or perhaps a little bit of kombucha or yogurt, whether it's a dairy version or a non-dairy version.
[00:17:40] So this allows us to just like replete some of that good healthy bacteria into the gut. If you look at most people's microbiomes, they have too much of the bad stuff. Maybe they have overgrowth of bad bacteria or they have too much fungus or something, and they often don't have enough of the good stuff.
[00:17:56] So the point here would be to put more of that good [00:18:00] bacteria back in there. And then we want to eat some therapeutic foods that strengthen the integrity of the gut lining. So things like bone broth or adding some aloe, or using some licorice tea. All of these help to reduce some of the inflammation and the gut lining itself and can strengthen that barrier because we want, we don't want food prematurely coming into the bloodstream.
[00:18:23] So the gut, actually, if you look at the inner tube of the gut, it's considered outside of the body. And it's only when things permeate through the gut lining that they enter the body. If people have too much permeability. So there are these, there can be gaps in the gut, larger gaps in the gut and something called
[00:18:40] Maybe I've heard of it as like leaky gut and in medical terms it would be increased intestinal permeability. So if that's the case, then you have food that's prematurely passing through. Into the bloodstream. So it's prematurely entering the body and that creates a problem. So we want stuff that's going to strengthen that integrity of the gut lining to prevent that from happening.
[00:18:59] And then [00:19:00] other practical things that are really important, reducing stress. So stress actually makes the gut lining more permeable, which is not a good thing, as we've already discussed. So it's kind of that remove the foods that don't agree with you reinoculate with the good stuff, with those good microbes through probiotics or fermented foods, or perhaps both eating those therapeutic foods that are good for the gut lining and paying attention to the whole stress management and peace.
[00:19:22] If you're highly stressed out, one of the best things that you can do, not just for gut health, but for our general health, is really carving out time to manage it. And so what are some practices that somebody could do to manage that stress that you'd recommend. So I think the best antidote to stress is anything that's going to bring you joy, so that do more of what you actually like doing.
[00:19:43] You can also try more structured practices. Like meditation is something I talk about with basically everyone, you know. That's a great way to just take a little bit of time out from the Buisiness of the day and kind of sit with your breath or even something that's really easily applicable in any situation is just.
[00:19:59] Deep [00:20:00] breathing. Most of us are breathing so shallowly all day, and we're just racing from one thing to the next, or racing from one thought to the next. Actually taking some time to breathe deeply into the abdomen. Being present, being in the moment, this is the best way to just feel less stressed out.
[00:20:13] It's just, it's so hard not to feel really stressed when you're just like frantically running from one thing to the next. So carving out some of that time. Giving herself a little bit of time to decompress, maybe not over-scheduling yourself, and then having things like meditation or moving your body.
[00:20:28] For a lot of people, exercise can be really therapeutic. The deep breathing, and then there are other tools. If you're someone who likes writing, journaling can be a great way. Therapy is another great modality for managing stress. But yeah, I mean, to keep it simple though, it's like do the stuff you'd like.
[00:20:42] If you do more of what you like in life, you're going to feel less stressed out. No, I think that's going to help a lot of people. So I'd like to just get into some of the final question. So we like to break down people's routines, morning routines, rituals, habits in their daily life on the podcasts. I'd just like to just, if you could break down kind of maybe some morning routines that you have or [00:21:00] rituals that you swear by yourself.
[00:21:02] Sure. So I'm a huge proponent of the morning routine. I definitely did not grow up with one, and when I finally did successfully implement one a few years ago, I noticed that I just felt like. Way less stressed out, or I've always felt like I started my day on the right foot. My morning routine in theory starts actually before bed because I turned my phone into airplane mode before I go to sleep.
[00:21:22] And that way when I wake up, since I use my phone as an alarm, I wake up and I don't see any notifications. So I really try to keep my phone in airplane mode for at least the first 15 minutes that I'm awake. But usually it's more like 30 to 60 minutes. So let's say my alarm goes off, I hop out of bed, I brush my teeth, I wash my face, and then I meditate for about 10 minutes, typically 10 minutes, maybe 15, maybe five if I'm really busy.
[00:21:47] So meditate at the end of my meditation. I say three things I'm grateful for in that moment, and I really love doing that because it just puts, it just puts me into a positive state of mind. And then I make my bed and then I turn my phone on and I'll typically check my [00:22:00] email and just kind of like get the day started.
[00:22:02] Thank you for breaking that down. And what does personal care mean to you? This is such a good question. I think it means treating your body well out of love and respect for yourself. So if you sort of start from that love and respect for yourself, you're just naturally inclined to take care of yourself and do the things that bring you joy.
[00:22:20] It's like it really starts with that. The healthy lifestyle. Yeah. It starts with focusing on your relationship with yourself because if you honestly have respect for yourself, you feel naturally motivated to treat your body well. And is there a myth or a something you'd like to debunk in your field? My God, there's so many.
[00:22:40] So many of them. The biggest one that comes to mind is this whole idea that eating healthy is about dieting and depravation, because it really isn't. I think we do ourselves a disservice by focusing on pretty much exclusively a deprivation and dieting. So I think with a healthy diet, it's really about focusing on adding more of the good stuff.
[00:23:00] [00:22:59] And when you add more of the good stuff, you naturally crowd out a lot of the not so good stuff. If you're focused on deprivation and dieting, it's not sustainable. You know what I mean? Like it's just not a sustainable way to live, to always be thinking about what you can't have. So I said, we just, you come back to these, these basic principles of adding more of the good stuff.
[00:23:17] We add more color, we drink more water, we eat more vegetables, and yeah, it's just, I always find it's a shame that what we teach people is all about like depriving yourself. And it's just a bummer because it makes people feel really defeated. Yeah. No, I think that's definitely something I need to change.
[00:23:35] So, final question. If you were to have a dinner party and you can invite three people dead or alive, who would you pick and why? Oh my goodness, this is a tough one. Who would I pick? I would choose. I would love to have dinner with Elon Musk just because I'm really curious about, he's so smart. I would be, I would just love to know what are the things that goes through his mind.
[00:23:58] I would probably invite, [00:24:00] there's a guy named Dan Buettner who, he was a national geographic Explorer, and then he kind of shifted into the like health and wellness world. He has a book called blue zones, which I recommend, so it really liked the work that he's doing and the last person, who am I going to pick.
[00:24:16] I think I would pick, you know what? I think I've already paid so much Amish, Tim, I think I might've put Michael pollen at this dinner party, so would be asked to be a pretty good crew. Pretty good. A lot of, I'm sure a lot of good, healthy, healthy foods. So we can talk about health. Elon Musk can figure out ways to save the world.
[00:24:34] It would be great. Yeah. Yeah. You guys can figure out what to eat and then he can populate a new planet and totally, we'll have food for Mars. Well, we could solve world hunger. It would be super productive. Yeah. So this has been a great conversation, so thank you for being on the podcast, Kristina, and where if people wanted to connect with you offline or online, what would be the best place.
[00:24:55] Sure. So you can find me on Instagram at Christina VITAS. You can email [00:25:00] me firstname.lastname@example.org or you can visit me on my website. All right. Thank you. Thank you so much for you. She was so fun to talk to you.