The Gift of Self-Care: An Interview with Dr. Penelope McDonnell, ND

The Gift of Self-Care: An Interview with Dr. Penelope McDonnell, ND

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Nutritionist Dr. McDonnell talks wellness and all things health this new year!

Interview with Dr. McDonnell

January 11, 2021

“Buy some weights, a yoga mat, exercise bands and download some apps. The quality of what you can stream now is incredible and our personal workout area does not need to be large.”


Dr. McDonnell, sits down with Elisabeth Jones-Hennessy to talk about changing unhealthy lifestyle habits for the new year!

It is January, and we are all committing to health and lifestyle goals as usual.

How can we use this past year as guidance for sticking with and committing to a plan?

One silver lining from 2020 events is that some may have found all new and healthy ways to cook and exercise at home - which is terrific! Those new habits would be good to keep!

My general guideline for any change that involves health, is start with small steps in one or more health categories.. First, if you want to introduce/increase exercise into your life, instead of daily exercise as a goal, start by exercising 2, and only 2, days a week for 30 minutes – no more no less. Do this for a month and start adding on either time or an additional session. Stay with it for another month or two and consider adding on more. Second, simply adding green veggies and lots of olive oil to your daily diet three days a week to start. Even this small diet addition is beneficial to heart, detox, gut and immune function. Third, introduce intermittent fasting – the most beneficial is trying to go 14 hours between last bite of food at night and first bite of food (or drink if it contains a nut milk or dairy) in the morning. Gives the gut, pancreas, and liver a rest. Great for daily detox too! So many well executed, peer reviewed studies on the benefits of this! Lastly, sugar, alcohol, simple carbs like white flour based baked goods negatively affect immune function but cutting back is HARD! Try just two days a week of eating low/no sugar/alcohol/simple carbs.

Ok, tell us, Can we eat ourselves to a sound body?

It really depends on your health starting point and how willing you are to couple healthy eating with some exercise. If you are quite unhealthy, you may need supplements to support success. If not and you aren’t exercise averse, then absolutely yes you can eat yourself to a sound body. Reducing sugar, simple carbs, unhealthy fats, increasing green veggies, healthy protein sources and good fats (olive oil!) is the best start. . It’s important though to seek out fresh, locally sourced food as it tends to have more nutrient content..

Should we give up red meat? Sugar? Dairy?

Should we switch to a a plant based diet?

For almost all the above – it depends on your genetics, your blood type, your gut health, your health history, your age, and level of activity.
Baseline pros and cons of all three:

Red meat is a terrific source of iron and B12 – two critical nutrients that are quite low in a plant based diet.

On the flip side, red meat often contains antibiotics and hormones, along with a high saturated fat content. Eating grass fed and finished meat avoids all three. If you can afford it, choose good quality meat and eat in moderation – one or two times a week.

While eating more plants and beans is certainly better for the planet, some of my patients need to eat a lot of protein to feel good, so if they are not eating meat, they’ll be depending on plant based high protein powders like pumpkin seed, sacha inchi, and hemp. Some find that hard – especially if they are athletes.

Sugar- try to keep to under 7 grams a day – not including fruit. Too much sugar effects immune health, brain health, heart health and stamina. Long term, it affects teeth and skin.

Dairy – again, as with red meat – often loaded with antibiotics and hormones. Dairy is also hard for many to digest – not just for those that are lactose intolerant, but for those that are sensitive to whey and casein (and there are many!).

With all three, limit intake, but don’t completely cut out unless you feel ill eating it. Patients end up feeling very deprived and depressed when they are used to having meat, sugar and dairy (especially cheese!) and have to give it up. We are back to baby steps - the goal being less of all three.

Plant based diets do work for many of my patients – especially if they ease into it and are careful to count protein intake grams (80100g for a woman 100-20mg for a man), increase good fats and source quality organic when possible.

One of the biggest trends this past year was intermittent fasting,
Is that really a healthy way to live?

Yes! The majority of my patients feel better when they do this. And blood work numbers improve in many! Recent research tells us a 14 hour fast seems to be the sweet spot – 16 hours too much, 12 too short. What researchers are monitoring is the effect on blood work markers like sugar, fats, and vitamins. We know that 14 hour fasting improves all these numbers and appears to support detoxification as well. Valter Longo is the primary researcher behind this trend – he has some great Youtube videos on this.

As with every change though – ease into this – most patients find that eating breakfast later is easier than eating dinner early – oh and almond milk/oatmilk etc in your coffee or tea counts as breaking your fast as it stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin (what you are trying to avoid). Black coffee and tea with no sweetener is fine.

Recently the CEO of WholeFoods made headlines when he said “if Americans ate healthier they wouldn’t need health care”

How do you feel about that?

We are known not have the healthiest eating habits…

Well, I certainly agree that we would need less health care! Not sure about not needing it at all! The issue is, it’s terribly terribly hard to eat healthier – marketing, coupled with added sugar and salt make trashy food hard to resist!

Just starting with a couple of reduced sugar, dairy, alcohol days a week is an excellent first step!

How integral are vitamins?

I do test vitamin and micronutrient levels in patients and find they feel better taking what the test indicates is needed. We know from government studies that soil nutrient depletion is real and most of our fruits and veggies are not as nutrient rich as they were 100 years ago. I am seeing a concerning increase in people that are low in magnesium, iodine, and vitamin C. Eating organic helps – but I find more and more people need some sort of supplement.

And which vitamins should we be taking especially during covid?

So much unknown as to what works and what doesn’t work to prevent covid. There are some good studies on Vitamin c, zinc, vitamin d and melatonin. Those would be my choices.

Can we Od on vitamins?

Absolutely yes! That’s why I like to test levels. There are also additives and fillers in some vitamins that make them unhealthy to take long term. Quality matters, but even if you have a good quality supplement high amounts of certain nutrients (ie B6, selenium) can be toxic.

Is it better to get our vitamins thru our food intake?

Always food – the packaging can’t be beat!

We all know exercise plays an important role in a sound body, but during covid and the Winter months that has proven to be more difficult, any tips?

Buy some weights, a yoga mat, exercise bands and download some apps. The quality of what you can stream now is incredible and our personal workout area does not need to be large.

When you mention “showing ourselves gratitude” what does that mean for those of us unsure how to do that?

Dr Kristin Neff has done some pretty ground breaking research on the power of positive “self-talk”.  She has great youtube videos that explains her research. In a nutshell, she found that talking outload to yourself daily about your problems and verbally responding with understanding sympathy and empathy can change your baseline mood for the better. I recommend patients try it in the shower. Something about the speaking/hearing combo rewires your brain. Ground breaking in its simplicity and effect!!!

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