This week we were lucky enough to sit down with the lovely Dr. Theresa Nicassio, a psychologist, wellness specialist, author and kindness advocate.
Theresa discovered the hard way how food can be medicine. She immersed herself into learning everything she could about health and healing and was able to turn the trajectory of her life around.
Dr. Nicassio now shares her story with the as a wellness specialist to the global community in her capacities as a registered psychologist, speaker, raw food chef and nutrition educator, magazine columnist, and radio and TV guest.
Passionate about public awareness and empowerment, Theresa also contributes to social, emotional and environmental transformation through social media and her blogs TheresaNicassio.com & YumFoodForLiving.com.
Theresa is a 2015 Canadian Champion and 2016 Best in the World Award Recipient for her internationally-acclaimed book YUM: Plant-Based Recipes For A Gluten-Free Diet, a Top Finalist for the 2017 Canadian Mompreneur® of the Year Award, and is the host of the Dr. Theresa Nicassio Show on HealthyLife.net – All Positive Talk Radio.
Check out out interview below:
Spiritual Socialites: You wrote a book called YUM: plant-based recipes for a gluten-free diet. What was the inspiration for the book?
Interestingly, Kimberly, the inspiration was more like a multiple-car collision! It was like the goddesses conspired to ensure that I got the message, so they hit me with all they had (since I was a bit too dense on the uptake by their more gentle nudges).
There were so many cars in the crash, but the biggest semi in the whole affair was the sudden loss of my health, without any understandable cause at the time. Multi-system failure is no party. I was left without a functioning immune system, respiratory system, neurological system, circulatory system, joints… you get the picture. Impaired breathing, chronic inflammation and pain, perpetual infections, and the fear of leaving my daughter motherless was a pretty big wake-up call.
That said, it took twelve years before I figured out that food sensitivities associated with an undiagnosed autoimmune condition were at the root of my multitude of symptoms.
Discovering that food could be my medicine was super empowering, but the fact that there were no resources out there that could properly help me with my particular needs (that it turns out are not that dissimilar from many other folks’) was what ultimately led this rebellious mom who didn’t like to cook to become a Gourmet Raw Food Chef & Nutrition Educator and the author of a paradigm-shifting lifestyle book that has become an internationally-acclaimed multi-award-winning bestselling cookbook.
I never would have dreamt of ever becoming the Canadian national champion, let alone win a Gourmand Best in the World Award in the “Best Diet Book” category. I don’t even believe in “dieting”!
SS: You focus on “cooking with kindness”. What does that mean exactly?
I’m so glad you asked this question…and how perfect that I am being interviewed and answering this on Martin Luther King Day! The truth is, while YUM appears to be a cookbook of delicious and easy recipes (which it indeed very much is), the real message of the book is about kindness, compassion, inclusivity, empowerment and hope.
Irresistible food that itself demonstrates the possibilities for being inclusive is really the metaphor that serves as my secret weapon – my “in” if you will, that serves as my method to access the heart of my readers.
Remember, I’m a psychologist who understands what motivates people. It’s not through fear or “shoulds” that inspire people to change. It’s pleasure that does that magic. I knew that if people could feel intoxicated by the insane deliciousness of the food and mesmerized by the profound beauty of the photography, I might be able to invite them to the table to talk – even about big topics like kindness, compassion and sustainability.
The recipes and the food and garden photography stand on their own. Similarly, the educational and hope-filled content about food sensitivities, special ingredients and even awesome new inventions (like the diabetic-friendly whole-food based buttercream frosting that uses no sugar, butter, margarine, shortening or lard) offer hope and delicious possibilities. All this said, the true essence of the book is simply love. I don’t say that out loud too often, since it totally outs me as the New Age Hippie that I actually am.
SS: Do you see a link between food and spirituality?
Absolutely! A few years ago this was really brought home to me. Within just nine months, ten beloved people in my life died. I was literally brought to my knees with grief, asking myself “What is this thing called we call ‘Life’?.” And then the strangest “aha” moment came when I realized that our physical bodies are like a land-lease that is ultimately made from “worm poop.”
I know that sounds a bit crass, but it was actually one of the most humbling, freeing and enlightening realizations I’d ever had. When I shared this realization with my partner (who is incidentally an environmental scientist), his response was brilliant. He said, “So true. I feel privileged to be able to lease a bit of worm poop for a while too. It’s such a gift, even though it won’t last forever.”
With all this talk about worm poop, you may be wondering where the food part comes in. The food just happens to be another part of the big circle of life that we are all a part of. Because we are a part of it, we have the opportunity to serve. Food serves us by nourishing us with nutrients, beauty and pleasure. We serve food by honouring where it comes from and nurturing it and all the other creatures that are a part of the circle. We all matter. Every one of us – every person, every plant, every animal… every bite of food…and even every last tiny worm matters. As I have shared on my website:
“If every drop of water believed itself insignificant, there would be no ocean.” ~Dr. Theresa Nicassio
SS: What is the link between psychology and food?
Yet another big question, Kimberly! As I mentioned earlier, we are pleasure-driven beings. We also don’t typically like to suffer and (at least in principle) we don’t like to have to work too hard for the rewards that we seek. We are also social beings with a complex emotional world, all packaged within our impermanent existence.
Part of our psychology is that we learn by associations. When we do something that results in us receiving some sort of reward, we are then more inclined to do it again. If we do something that results in us experiencing suffering of some sort, or at least not receiving any pleasurable outcome, over time we learn to do less of those behaviors. There are also contextual things that we might begin to unconsciously as well as consciously associate with different emotions or inner states.
Now, bring food into the conversation. Food is an indisputable part of our existence. It is not only needed to sustain our lives, but also can offer pleasure beyond comprehension. Just like Pavlov’s dogs learned to associate the ringing of a little bell with food, demonstrating their emotional excitement through their salivation to the bell, it’s not hard to imagine how many complex associations to our relationships, our experiences of feeling joy or sadness, love or shame that we develop in our lifetimes with food — real or imagined.
We even learn to self-sooth with food using “comfort foods” that we have come to experience as associated with more pleasurable or soothing memories, events and experiences.
This topic and its implications are huge. It is in fact another facet of the healing vision I have for my book, especially for those whose relationship with food is affected by significant disordered eating and body image struggles. It is my hope that the book helps to offer a gentle and joyous pathway for transformation.
SS: You can tell that cooking is definitely a passion for you. How did you start on this path?
It sure is now, even though this hasn’t always been the case. I grew up in a blue-collar Italian-American home and community. Food was definitely celebrated, and as the only daughter in the family, I was expected to be right by my mom’s side along with the other women in the family to prepare the meals. In addition to the meals, there was the jam-making, the canning, the pickling, the gardening, the harvesting, the seed-saving, the dehydrating, and every other aspect of the food preparation possible. Our community was incredible—we would all share our harvests with each other, often getting large boxes of produce that we had to work with quickly in order to be able to use them. It was actually an amazing training ground.
This all sounds great, right? Well, I hate disappoint, but as a fiery “tomboy” who was a rebellious young feminist at heart, being in the kitchen was the LAST place I wanted to be. Cooking for me represented gender-based disempowerment, at best. The only real passion I had for cooking for decades was a passion not to do it at all. This is part of what makes this whole journey even more surprising.
The reason I became passionate about cooking was because the meaning of what it was about changed. Cooking became a way that I could stay alive and thrive. It became a way that I could help others. It became the mechanism by which I could heal my body, breathe more easily, walk my kids to school, and even dance again. Cooking empowered me so that I would not have to leave my daughters motherless before they graduated high school.
It’s almost surreal how my food-centric upbringing later combined with my scientific curiosity, sensory acuity, artistry and strong will came together to offer me the ability to create not only delicious food, but also a one-of-a-kind resource that has been able to help thousands of people. I never would have guessed that the skills I begrudgingly learned in my youth would become such great treasures that would serve in such a lifegiving way. Now cooking is in the marrow of my bones. It has given me life and the gift to offer respite and hope to others as well.
SS: Do you consider yourself spiritual? If so, what lead you to that path?
I do consider myself spiritual, as you can probably gather from my other responses. My spirituality has a more ancient quality about it, though, that is not defined by conventional parameters of religion or spirituality.
My sense of spirituality emerges from a deep sense of gratitude and awe. Not many people know this, but when I was 16 years old, I got caught in a powerful full-body electric current and couldn’t escape it. Covered in perspiration and grounded with both hands firmly locked in the circuit, I was frozen in time—only able to scream, knowing that those screams might be my last utterances ever. Fortunately, even though I went through a rapid life-review before almost dying, I was blessed by literally being unplugged. That experience brought me to my knees for the gift of life.
Living through a second round of facing my possible early death, which was the inspiration for my book, is is difficult to find words for. The gift of being here and having wisdom and resources that I can now offer others propels me to do more and offer more. My soul’s purpose is to serve. I know this, but I can’t tell you how I know it. While shrouded in mystery, my spirituality is at its core very simple, loving, intuitive and kind.
SS: What is your definition of a Spiritual Socialite?
When I think about it, I suppose it might be resonant with my own mission. Simply put, I would say that a “Spiritual Socialite” would be “a person who loves others and enjoys manifesting their spiritual vision with and through community.”
I believe that alone we are limited, but when we work together as a community, indescribable power and wondrous change and goodness is possible. This is definitely what I am trying to do. How exciting that there might be an actual movement of other like-minded people.