Interview with Renee Pletka, Specialist in Eating Psychology and Mind-Body Nutrition


I first met Renee when she was still working in marketing at CBS. She was always a thoughtful, considerate, and helpful colleague. We went for some walks together after we both left that job, and I learned that Renee was transitioning her career. Her passion for nutrition, along with her soulfulness, was leading her down a new path. Here’s a description from her website:

It has nothing to do with calorie counting, point tracking, weekly weigh-ins, good/bad food lists, dogmatic diets or punishing exercise. It’s all about learning how to tune into your innate body wisdom and trusting it to guide you toward wise, kind and nourishing choices.

Renee and her father, an early source of inspiration.

This has always felt very Beautiful Voyager to me. Eating, and the difficult mind-body connection, can be esp hard for people who are stuck in their heads. I wanted to ask Renee about what she’s learned over the years to see if it could help any fellow voyagers. She graciously accepted my interview offer!

Renee, Thank you for taking part in this conversation.

Question #1: How long have you been helping people with their own eating psychology, and what have you seen change in that time?


Thanks so much, Meredith. I really appreciate this opportunity to engage with you and your community members.

When I started…
I started my holistic health coaching practice in 2011 and quickly realized that in order to help my clients truly make sustainable changes, I needed to be able to help them better understand their relationship with food, eating and their body.

So I did extensive training in mind-body nutrition and eating psychology, which has enabled me to help my clients on a much deeper, more impactful level. It’s so much more than just the food on your plate.

What’s changed…
As we’ve all experienced, the world of nutritional science is constantly changing and full of contradictions. It’s maddening, insanely confusing, and causes a lot of unnecessary suffering!

This is why I am so focused on helping my clients find a way of nourishing themselves that works best for their unique mind, body and soul. I do this by helping them tune into, trust, and honor their body wisdom (versus external sources) so they can return to the intuitive eater that they came into this world as.

The biggest change I’ve witnessed among the individuals I’ve supported over the years is a growing desire to release the dieting mindset. People are tired of spending so much time, energy and headspace thinking about what they ate, what they shouldn’t have eaten, what’s wrong with their body, etc.

It’s my intention to help them cultivate a more loving, peaceful, trusting and relaxed relationship with food and their body. Doing so is truly liberating for them.

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It is pretty crazy to think of how things have changed since my childhood, when my father would go off to institutes like Pritikin to get healthy, then come home and return to daily habits. The change in eating is much deeper these days.


A funny Pritikin promo video that looks like it was shot in 1998, but actually was 2008. Note that the voiceover is Dave Davies from Fresh Air, and the video includes a guest appearance by Jeff Garlin.

Question #2: Can you describe more about the “liberation” you’ve seen people experience? What exactly are they liberating from? What does that look like?


My clients feel a sense of liberation when they end their war with food and their body.

They experience a sense of freedom, peace and ease when they stop constantly thinking about what they should or shouldn’t be eating; bouncing from one diet to the next; restricting and depriving themselves; beating themselves up for not having enough discipline or willpower; exercising in punishing, unenjoyable ways; being a slave to the scale; incessantly criticizing their body; putting their life on hold until they reach their ideal size or shape—all ways of being that are often accompanied by guilt, shame, self-loathing, anger, disappointment, despair, etc.

It takes commitment and courage to release the beliefs and behaviors that are no longer serving you, especially when we live in a world that’s constantly telling us we’re not good enough unless we conform to a certain ideal (e.g., the thin ideal).

This isn’t an overnight process. It’s a slow unfolding that requires a lot of patience, curiosity, self-compassion and self-acceptance.

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Everything you say is so true, esp the part about commitment and courage.

Question 3: Over your years of experience, what have you learned about how the digestive system interacts with stress and anxiety? Does that come up with clients?


Stress and anxiety can have a major impact on your digestive system.

When my clients are experiencing digestive challenges, like stomachaches, cramping, gas, bloating, acid reflux, constipation or diarrhea, they naturally think they might have a food intolerance (e.g., lactose, gluten, etc.).

However, before we experiment with dietary changes, we explore their relationship with stress and anxiety.

Your body can’t tell the difference between different types of stress. It perceives all stressors as a hungry saber-tooth tiger and immediately responds by going into fight-or-flight mode.

When your body switches to fight-or-flight mode, your digestive system shuts down. Basically, the part of your brain that turns on stress simultaneously turns off digestion.

Stress On = Digestion Off

It makes sense when you think about it. If you encounter a “tiger,” your body isn’t going to waste its precious energy digesting lunch. All of its resources will go to your limbs so you can fight or flee.

Self-Chosen Stressors
One of the “homework assignments” I give my clients is to make a list of everything in their life that causes them stress and anxiety. We then explore how they can change their relationship with these things, especially the stressors that are self-chosen.

Self-chosen stressors are thoughts, beliefs, behaviors or ways of being with yourself that generate stress. Here are some examples:

  • negative self-talk (e.g., I shouldn’t have eaten that; I’m too heavy; I’m not pretty enough; I’m not smart enough, I’m not doing enough, etc.)
  • perfectionism
  • rigid diet and exercise rules
  • comparing self to others
  • multitasking
  • suppressing emotions
  • conditional happiness (e.g., I will be happy when…I lose 10 pounds, find the perfect mate, get a different job, etc.)

Self-chosen stressors put your body in a chronic low-level state of stress physiology (a.k.a. the “stress response”). This can lead to numerous health challenges including digestive issues.

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What a great approach to start with the self-chosen stressors. I love your description of how the body won’t waste energy digesting when stressed.

Question #3: In your studies, have you explored what happens when people eat stressed? Are the symptoms you mentioned above: stomachaches, cramping, gas, bloating, acid reflux, constipation or diarrhea, examples?


Yes, those are some of the physical conditions that can occur when eating while stressed.

For some individuals, stress can turn off their appetite. Other people find themselves frequently reaching for food when they are stressed or anxious. When you are stressed or anxious, your adrenal glands pump out cortisol, a hormone that increases appetite.

Stress can also trigger a hormonal imbalance that impacts your food preferences. Studies have found that stressed people typically reach for foods high in fat, sugar, or both.

It’s not uncommon to have strong cravings when feeling strong emotions, or constantly graze, overeat or binge eat.

My clients often express feelings of guilt, shame, anger, disappointment, etc. when they emotionally eat. It’s so helpful for them to understand that it’s not due to a lack of willpower or discipline.

Even though it may not seem like it, turning to food to alleviate your stress or anxiety is actually a form of self-care. You’re simply trying to make yourself feel better—and your strategy often works, albeit temporarily.

Eating can be very grounding. Food is also soothing due to the chemical changes it produces in your body. The act of eating—especially highly pleasurable foods like chocolate, cheese, cupcakes and chips—releases the feel-good chemical dopamine into your bloodstream.

Many of us were taught from a young age to turn to food for comfort. You may have been conditioned by a well-meaning parent who gave you cookies and milk to soothe your worries, or by media messages that promised relief in a bowl of ice cream, basket of fries or bottle of wine.

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I really love the insights you shared on this particular response, Renee. The idea that you are soothing yourself when eating, not just physically but chemically, really resonates with me. Considering that…

Question #5: If I am eating to soothe a chemical imbalance, how do I learn not to overeat or binge on sugar? Is it a mindfulness practice?


I take a multi-pronged approach with my clients. We explore different tools and strategies including mindfulness practices.

One simple tool (that is always accessible to you) is to pause and focus on your breath when you have the impulse to eat to alleviate anxiety or stress.

As I mentioned, when you feel anxious or stressed, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode (a.k.a. the stress response).

Your rational brain shuts down and your primitive brain takes over. Your ability to think, reason and consider the long-term consequences of your actions is diminished. You basically go offline.

The fastest, simplest way to come back online is by pausing and taking a few deep breaths.

This will shift your body from the stress response to the relaxation response, the state you need to be in to reactivate your rational brain and make more thoughtful, intentional decisions.

You can take three to four long, slow breaths, or practice a more formal breathing exercise. I’m a big fan of Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 Breathing Technique.

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It’s weird how often the answer is: take a deep breath. I remember my mom
saying that I needed to breath more deeply as a kid, and I always blew it
off (pardon the pun). How dumb I was.

Second to last question: What would you say is the most surprising thing
you’ve seen happen over the years in dealing with how people think about
food and eating?


Yes, we should never underestimate the power of our breath to transform our mental, emotional and physical state. I start every client session with the 4-7-8 breath exercise to help my clients hit the reset button and ground themselves before we begin.

I think for my clients, the biggest surprise is discovering that their challenges with food and their body often have very little to do with food or their body.

For example, a client who struggles with intense sugar cravings may be surprised to learn that, in her/his case, it’s not due to a lack of willpower or a sugar addiction, but to a pleasure deficiency.

That is, when someone’s life is lacking pleasure, sugar often becomes her/his main source of it, especially as sweets are so easily accessible. Thus, the sugar cravings make perfect sense. After all, as humans, we’re pleasure seekers and pain avoiders.

Once the client starts bringing additional sources of pleasure into her/his life (e.g., joyful movement, creative projects, new relationships, etc.), she/he finds that the cravings diminish.

This is just one reason why someone might crave sugar. Sugar cravings can be driven by a physical, mental, emotional or spiritual imbalance—often there is more than one contributing factor.

I encourage my clients to approach their cravings with compassion and curiosity rather than criticism and contempt. Greater self-awareness is the first step toward releasing beliefs and behaviors that are no longer serving you.

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This interview was so wonderful @renee – thank you so much. There are so many gems in here! Example: I am doing the 4-7-8 method of breathing right after I finish typing this.

Final question: How has working on eating psychology and mind-body nutrition changed you personally?

Thank you again Renee!


It’s hard to even put into words how much I’ve changed and grown since embarking on this journey. You can’t do work like this and not have it impact you personally.

My own relationship with food and my body has changed significantly, and it continues to evolve. I have such a greater understanding of what’s driving my beliefs and behaviors, and have so much more self-compassion and self-acceptance—and patience!

I feel more at ease and at home in my body, which is very liberating, empowering and peaceful.

I’ve caused myself a lot of unnecessary suffering over the years believing that in order to be acceptable, valuable, worthy and desirable, I had to look a certain way and do certain things. Feeling “not enough” is a core belief I strive to help my clients let go of as well.

When we choose to accept ourselves, we free up a huge amount of energy typically spent resisting what is.

Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to engage with your community, Meredith. You truly have a very special thing going here.

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Renee, thank you so much for your time and wisdom! I hope you won’t be a stranger and will continue to share on the forums. Love, Meredith