Molly Alliman: Nutritious Living – On and Off the Plate
A former corporate banker with a 24/7, always-on life, Molly Alliman did a sharp left turn, returning to school to study nutrition. Today, she has a private practice and provides corporate wellness programs to firms like Airbnb, ZenDesk, and WeWork covering subjects such as managing burning out, reading ingredient labels, and creating your unique food philosophy. This episode runs the gamut from depleted adrenal systems to elimination diets to the optimal way to think about sugar.
It’s important to note that the medical community does not recognize “adrenal fatigue” as a medical condition. Our guest, Molly Alliman, is sharing her opinions as a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Our host, Manisha Thakor, wishes to acknowledge that there is much debate in this area and anyone suffering from similar symptoms should consult their personal physician.
“Burnout isn’t just in a job that you hate, and you don’t look forward to going into in the morning; it can happen when you’re passionate, and you’re really doing something that you love even more because you don’t know when to turn off.”
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Molly Alliman: I got burned out. And actually, it’s funny, I got burned out without even knowing it because I’m like, “Oh, I’m spending all these hours doing what I love so how could I get burned out from work that I love?” I didn’t realize that you can get burned out… burnout isn’t just in a job that you hate and you don’t look forward to going into in the morning; it can happen when you’re passionate and you’re really doing something that you love even more because you don’t know when to turn off.
Manisha Thakor: Welcome to the true WELLth podcast, where our goal is to help you increase your overall well-being by more tightly aligning the way you spend your money and your time with what matters most to you in life. We do this by bringing you a wide range of insights from experts in the four core areas of well-being: social, emotional, financial and physical.
Manisha Thakor: Today’s guest, Molly Alliman, falls into this latter camp: physical. A former investment banker doing corporate transactions in the debt market, Molly shifted into nutrition studying at the prestigious Institute for Integrative Nutrition out of New York City. Today, Molly runs her own practice, consisting of two distinct offerings. On one side, she conducts corporate wellness programs at megacompanies, ranging from Airbnb to WeWork. On the other side, she works with clients on a one-on-one basis to address issues such as digestive disorders, food intolerances and food allergies, and healing distorted relationships with foods such as binge and/or restrictive eating.
Manisha Thakor: This is the first true WELLth podcast where we dive deeply into well-being as it relates to our physical bodies, discussing topics ranging from burnout to nutrient-dense eating. Let’s dig in.
Molly Alliman: Yeah. It’s funny that my burnout actually came after my corporate life or post-corporate life, which is kind of ironic because you would think working the hours that I did and the travel that I did in banking, I would experience burnout. But really, it came when I started my own company and my own business because I do have a private practice. For the first two and a half years of my business, I was a one-woman show and I really believed that I could do everything on my own. And I, all of a sudden, didn’t have a schedule that was anybody’s but mine so that meant that I could work at all hours of the day. I didn’t come into an office in the morning and then shut my laptop at night. I wasn’t on Slack with my coworkers, where I can choose to turn my phone on or off. It was just me and it was hard to turn off.
Molly Alliman: And, in a sense, I kind of didn’t really want to turn off because I do truly love and enjoy what I do for a living. It’s my passion. So, sometimes when I’m done with clients, I’d be on my computer all night, working on content or programs. And I got burned out. And actually, it’s funny, I got burned out without even knowing it because I’m like, “Oh, I’m spending all these hours doing what I love, so how could I get burned out from work that I love?”
Molly Alliman: I didn’t realize that you can get burned out… Burnout isn’t just in a job that you hate and you don’t look forward to going into in the morning; it can happen when you’re passionate and you’re really doing something that you love even more because you don’t know when to turn off.
Manisha Thakor: In May, 2019, the World Health Organization added burnout to the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, ICD-11, defining it specifically as follows: “Burnout is a symptom conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions. Number one: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion. Number two: increased mental distance from one’s jobs or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s jobs. And number three: reduced professional efficacy. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Manisha Thakor: In our 24/7, always-on culture, some of the most susceptible to this occupational hazard are highly driven, Type-A, hard-chargers who define themselves by their work, often the very last people who want to admit they’re struggling.
Molly Alliman: My symptoms were really kind of came on… They came on very quickly. The first thing was sleep. I had a problem sleeping. Wake up in the middle of the night, I couldn’t turn my mind off. I felt like I had eight cups of coffee during the day and couldn’t go to sleep.
Molly Alliman: The other one I had was just being really groggy in the afternoon and having low… like an energy crash in the afternoon. And ever since I had really changed my diet and empowered myself to eat in a way that makes me feel really good, I haven’t had energy crashes in the afternoon for over 10 years and now, all of a sudden, I was. And I was like, “Gosh, it’s three o’clock. I could just lay down on my couch right now and work from home.” And it was like I’d just lay down on my couch and go to sleep for two hours because I’m so exhausted.
Molly Alliman: And then the third one for me was my mood. I started to realize that my mood really got affected and I was… A lot of things that didn’t bother me before, bothered me so much more. And I just became cranky and not really a person that I would even want to be around.
Molly Alliman: So, there’s so many more symptoms that I’m happy to go through but those were really the top three that happened to me.
Manisha Thakor: “Burnout” is an interesting term. It’s akin to the word “love.” We may say “I love this meal” or we may say “I love my daughter.” Both are love but in very different ways. The same goes for burnout. You can say after a day of yard work under a hot sun “Yeesh, I’m burned out. I’ll finish this tomorrow.” But that’s very different from the type of burnout Molly experienced, which can result from situations such as working full steam ahead with a nearly tunnel-like focus on your work and no true emotional or physical breaks in terms of the kinds of activities that most people engage in to build true work-life balance. As such, I was interested to hear Molly’s take on exactly what happens to the body when it experiences this latter, more serious type of burnout.
Molly Alliman: So, when you’re constantly stressed or constantly in a state of fight or flight, the simple way of saying it is that your adrenals become pooped out and your cortisol levels plummet. And when that happens physically, you have those symptoms, like I talked about, in terms of not being able to sleep and being exhausted and being moody. But it also can result in inflammation, is I think a big thing that’s talked about today, the puffiness, the stiffness or the soreness in your body that can actually manifest as you go on a workout that you used to get tons of energy from and now you’re just exhausted after it or you’re having that energy drop in the afternoon. Your digestion can go way off as well when cortisol levels go down.
Molly Alliman: And then another thing also for women, that I see a lot with women who come to me with burnout, is their cycle being off, where they’re like, you know, “Hey, I’m used to being on a 28-day cycle. And one month, I’m 25 and the next month, I’m 30 or one month, I’m light and the next month, I’m really heavy.” So, yeah, I mean, it really depends on the person but there’s so many things that can be affected.
Manisha Thakor: And how does burnout affect men?
Molly Alliman: Yeah. Testosterone levels change. So, I always use the example in my lectures of Obama, kind of Obama before he… look at the photo of Obama before he went into office and when came out of office and how his hair changed. He lost his hair and it turned gray. So, I always tell men in lectures, I say, “Your sex drive will plummet. You can lose hair at a quicker pace. Your hair will turn gray.” A lot of men get kind of the belly. That comes from when you’re exhausted, you’re not really giving your body what it needs or if you’re eating in a way that’s creates stress, blood sugar fluctuations because you need energy because your adrenals have plummeted. You’re really actually punishing your adrenals. So, that can cause a lot of men to hold weight around their gut as well. So, I saw that a lot when I worked in banking, in terms of men with the gut in the front. A lot of that comes from burnout and adrenal fatigue and those drastic blood sugar fluctuations as a result of it.
Manisha Thakor: So, as a seasoned health coach, when someone is finally ready to admit to themselves that they have true, serious burnout and they come to you seeking guidance, what are some of the specific steps you recommend taking on the nutritional front?
Molly Alliman: I think a part of it is kind of what you’re putting in your body can really affect that. If anybody’s experiencing adrenal fatigue, I always suggest the first cutout to ditch caffeine because what caffeine does is… Caffeine’s actually putting your body into that constant state of stress and fight or flight. So, cut out the caffeine, kind of processed foods, the refined sugar. Add more good fats and fresh fruits and vegetables and fermented foods like yogurt or sauerkraut or kefir, which are good for your gut and just good organic meats into your diet.
Manisha Thakor: And let’s say you’re really trying to be mindful but it’s just still not working. Then what?
Molly Alliman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I will advise what I actually did myself and what I advise others to do is to actually go seek professional medical help. And I give the advice of going to seek that out from a functional medicine doctor. Conventional doctors don’t necessarily know how to recognize those symptoms that you talk about or sometimes treating the condition. So, functional medicine doctors are wonderful.
Molly Alliman: Get your adrenal glands evaluated. Those practitioners really know what to look for. It’s something that you don’t have to remember but they will know. It’s called DHEAS, which comes up in a routine blood work. They can do a saliva test for cortisol as well but really getting your adrenal glands evaluated is so, so important because then they’ll do the treatment in terms of a combination of vitamins and supplements and really good mind-body interventions that you can work with health coach like me on as well.
Manisha Thakor: Switching gears here, I want to talk about diets. Interestingly, just as we talked about the words “love” and “burnout,” “diet” is yet another word that can have multiple meanings depending upon how it is used. Let me give you an example. We asked a variety of people what is the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the word diet?
Speaker 1: When I hear the word “diet,” I think of the first word.
Speaker 2: Unhappy.
Speaker 3: Salad.
Speaker 4: Diet Coke.
Speaker 5: Working out a lot and not eating a lot.
Speaker 6: Restricted.
Speaker 7: Less sugar.
Manisha Thakor: Yet etymologically-speaking, the word “diet” comes from the Greek word “diaita,” which refers to the manner of living or the way in which one leads their lives, i.e. a much broader definition than whether or not you eat carbs. So, how did we end up in this place where people are using words like “elimination diet”? And what the heck is that anyway?
Molly Alliman: Of course. Yeah. So, my tactic or approach, I guess, you can say, for elimination diets actually came out of working in the corporate world. So, I worked in corporate banking for over 13 years and I had a lot of colleagues of mine who would always do juice cleanses and juice fasts, which are really, really bad for your body and pretty restrictive in the fact that you’re not chewing food and there’s no fiber in juice cleanses. But the point is for that is I really wanted to find a way to kind of cleanse my own body while still working full-time.
Molly Alliman: And I had discovered the idea of an elimination diet through a naturopath doctor that I worked with on my own in the beginning of my journey about 10 years ago for my health and learned about really how elimination diet work because it kind of is like a cleanse or a detox of any foods that are causing any disruption digestively. So, you think about that in terms of foods that cause allergies or food intolerances or food sensitivities. The typical ones that we hear about are wheat and dairy and sugar. But beyond that, there’s so many more foods that can affect us and our digestion in harmful ways that we just may not know about. And so, I go beyond that and I sometimes eliminate just any of the top allergens, so that can be shellfish, peanuts, even eggs, things that my clients believe may be causing any digestive symptoms or discomfort. So, the elimination diet is really just eliminating any foods that they think may be causing digestive discomfort or some of the popular ones that are usually harming people today.
Molly Alliman: And really what that is is usually it’s the processed versions of those foods. So, when we talk about wheat and we talk about dairy, I have a lot of clients of mine who will get bloat and constipation from certain types of wheat and then they eat sourdough or a simple sprouted wheat bread and their digestion is totally fine, which are very unprocessed types of wheat or gluten or bread. So, it really just depends on the person.
Molly Alliman: And the reintroduction part of it is really the most important part of an elimination diet or elimination plan. I usually start with about 10 to 14 days off of those foods to give your system a chance to kind of clear house and then I reintroduce one by one. And we go one by one in terms of each day, we introduce a new food and then I give them a list of symptoms to pay attention to.
Molly Alliman: They journal, they keep a food journal, to see what comes up in terms of “am I bloating when I eat this food? Do I have gas when I eat this food?” And even beyond that, I have them pay attention to their mood, their sleep, their skin and everything else that food can really affect over the course of the reintroduction so they can… Again, it’s all about teaching my clients to become empowered in their choices with food so that they know specifically what foods are making them feel a certain way when it comes to their health. So, you eliminate those foods, clear house and then you reintroduce them one by one and then keep track of those symptoms and see really how foods are affecting you in your body.
Manisha Thakor: Molly, whenever I’m checking out at the grocery store, I see this plethora of magazines touting new diets. And they can’t all be good and to my lay years, some of them actually sound scary. What are the downsides of all these different recommendations?
Molly Alliman: Yeah. I think in my realm of health coaching, improper diet is… it’s kind of two-part. One: the ingredients that you put into your body and then also two: the restriction of food groups. I would put improper diets in the category of paleo or Whole30 or keto, kind of in that category where you’re taking out food groups that are really good and nourishing for your body, such as grains or such as legumes, that aren’t on these diets and even good, whole carbohydrates and grains as well, that that can really, really affect your health, like you said, not so much from a digestive standpoint, but especially for women from a hormone standpoint.
Molly Alliman: A lot of women who go on these restrictive diets will end up losing their periods, end up with diagnosises of amenorrhea. I’ve seen a lot of hormone swings, mood swings, progesterone and estrogen being affected, even your adrenals being affected. You’re not getting the right nutrients for your body to produce hormones and that can really affect you as a woman.
Molly Alliman: I think on the male side, I see it affect them in terms of energy. Can be really kind of like a health problem from an improper diet is energy crashes because they’re not eating carbohydrates for energy and they’re getting their energy from fats, which can be sustainable but I always ask the question… A lot of men who are on the keto diet will say, “Oh, I’ve had so much more energy actually since starting the diet.” And I always ask them, “Well, what is your breakfast in the morning?” And 9 times out of 10, they’ll say, “Well, I’m not eating a breakfast. I’m having my Bulletproof coffee in the morning.” So, I always respond back and say, “Okay, you’re not eating and you’re having caffeine on an empty stomach. No wonder you have so much more energy but how is your sleep? And how’s your sex drive as well?” I’ve had a lot of men struggle with that in terms of being on improper diets.
Molly Alliman: And a lot of men who are on those diets supplement with these shake and protein powders that… getting more into the ingredient realm of improper diet, where there’s a lot of fake foods and fake ingredients out there today, processed sugars. Gums are my favorite thing to talk about. And you see xantham gum and all those gums that are in their stabilizers that are in a lot of foods now. And just lack of education around ingredients. People are more apt to really look at the label and see how many grams of carbohydrates or fats or any of the macronutrients are there but kind of skip the ingredient-reading part, which is so important as well.
Manisha Thakor: So, the latest, biggest, baddest Bogeyman these days seems to be sugar. What are your thoughts on that?
Molly Alliman: Yeah. I mean, sugar’s such a tough subject to approach. There’s been a lot of… I’ve listened to podcasts and watched lectures out there of dieticians or the nutritionist talking about food in terms of when you eat this type of food, it’s the equivalent of eating one tablespoon of sugar or if you’re eating this type of carbohydrate, it’s the equivalent of eating two tablespoons of sugar. But our body processes nutrients in food different than we process processed sugar.
Molly Alliman: So, I generally look at grams of sugar. I like to have usually under 10 grams of sugar if I’m buying a bar. If I’m on the go, like in an airport or traveling and I’m eating bars, I like to have 10 grams or less of sugar. Same with granola. Granola’s a really high-sugar food. I usually like to buy ones that are 7 or 8 grams of sugar or less because that’s just takes into account the added sugar. But then if fruit were to have a label, which it doesn’t, you don’t pick up a banana with a food label on it, but if it were, a banana definitely has more than 10 grams of sugar. But a banana also has so many more nutrients in it and it has fiber in it as well. So, our body breaks down the glucose a lot differently.
Molly Alliman: Fructose is a big part of that too, which can be argued that it’s processed the same as table sugar. But it’s so hard to draw a hard line in the sand with grams of sugar because you have to take into account the fiber content as well, which fiber helps to slow glucose, the release of glucose, which is what sugar converts to in our body, versus a food that doesn’t have fiber or is processed. So, that’s why I was talking about bars or anything that’s packaged or processed like bars or granola, to usually have under 10 grams of sugar in those because otherwise, it’s just added sugar that you’re eating and that you don’t really need.
Manisha Thakor: Molly, what’s been the most impactful insight you’ve personally had since transitioning from the financial services industry to the world of nutrition?
Molly Alliman: Yeah. That’s a great question. I think the biggest eye-opener for me, and one that I still use in my practice today, is that health isn’t just about what’s on your plate. So, in the program, I talk a lot about off-the-plate nutrition in terms of your relationships, in terms of your spirituality, in terms of how you find joy in life, in terms of how you’re moving your body or getting exercise; that health is really all-encompassing and it’s not just about the food that you eat and what’s on your plate; that you can eat all the broccoli and kale in the world and if you’re not truly happy in your career, in your relationships with others and yourself, then you’re going to be pretty far from achieving true health with yourself.
Manisha Thakor: This episode with Molly strikes me a lot like a Rorschach test. My strong hunch is that each listener will understandably hone in on a different set of takeaways for, to state the obvious, each of our bodies are different and need to be treated as such when it comes to creating our own unique recipes for eating and overall well-being.
Manisha Thakor: So, as a data set of one, what did I take away from this episode? Well, first, as someone who’s currently struggling with burnout in her own adrenal system, I loved Molly’s distinction between health on the plate and health off the plate. First of all, it reminded me that as important as it is to understand what foods my body responds best to, that’s only part of the well-being equation. But it also reminded me that as it pertains to my career, which I love and hope continues on for several more decades, as intensely as I focused on honing my skills and giving my all to my work-life on the plate, I now need to learn the skills of developing a restorative and recovering practice of life off the plate.
Manisha Thakor: Second, as someone who also wants to more consistently engage in nutrient-dense eating, I found Molly’s two-pronged mental model for defining an improper diet very helpful. You may recall she thinks about improper eating as having two components, one: the ingredients you put into your body and two: the restrictions you may be putting on food groups as a result of the latest diets. From this, I took away that my “diet,” which generally consists of aiming for 80% of my daily intake to come from foods that either have no ingredient labels, think blueberries or brussel sprouts, or foods where I can identify every ingredient on the label, and the other 20% left open for splurges, is probably a reasonable approach.
Manisha Thakor: Lastly, I appreciated Molly’s comments that the current trend of sugar-bashing is not as simple as it may seem on the surface. Clearly, I’m not arguing that we each eat way more sugar than the pilgrims or even way more than people did in the 1970s. And that’s not a good thing for any of us. But the formula Molly gave us, which I’ll summarize as striving for a “high fiber to sugar ratio” when consuming things with sugar, was super helpful. Not only does that manner of eating stave off blood-sugar spikes and keep you fuller longer, thanks to the fiber, it feels like a logical versus an obsessive way to think about sugar, particularly natural sugars.
Manisha Thakor: Molly mentioned a number of books and resources during our conversation. As always, you can find them in our show notes at truewellthpodcast.com. And remember, that’s wellth: W-E-L-L-T-H. You’ll also find a link to Molly’s website and her social media coordinates. It’s the rare person who doesn’t know someone who is thinking about these issues. For any of the people in your life who can benefit from Molly’s insights, I encourage you to take less than a minute to text or email them with a link to this episode.
Manisha Thakor: I’m Manisha Thakor and that’s it for this episode of true WELLth.
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Announcer: Today’s episode was edited and produced by Stan Hall, alongside the true WELLth team: Chris Sylvester, Michael Stubel, Marc Asmus, Lindsey Hurt, Tara McElroy and John Dougherty. To get in touch with the team, visit truewellthpodcast.com.