Student Perspective: Denise Dalton


Denise Dalton, is a student on our Nutritional Therapy Programme and a practicing Nutrition & Health Coach. We sat down with Denise to learn more about where her interest in nutrition began and her experience studying on both the Nutrition & Health Coaching and Nutritional Therapy Programmes with IINH.

When did you first become interested in nutrition and health?

Although this is a simple question, my reasons are quite multifaceted. My fascination with nutrition and health has grown from different interests and priorities over the years.

I was very fortunate to grow up in a household where wholesome, home grown food was plentiful. Where warm, nourishing meals were a stable part of our diet. As I entered my late teens and early twenties, especially during my transition into college life, my nutrition and lifestyle patterns began to transform into something less healthy and sustainable. I was living away from home for the first time. With this, I began eating a very mundane diet, consuming alcohol much more frequently. I also became extremely sleep deprived, as I was constantly worrying about impending college deadlines.

“The anxiety that I was experiencing at the time was unbearable.”

After a few months, I noted that my anxiety, which I had always suffered with to a certain extent, was heightened to a level that I had never previously experienced. The anxiety that I was experiencing at the time was unbearable. So unbearable, I began to suffer from panic attacks, which on many occasions led to fainting episodes. These were most concerning. They could happen at any time, not necessarily directly after my panic attack episode and would result in uncontrollable injuries.  

As my world seemed to become more and more out of control, I began to discover an area in my life that I could control. That one area in my life was the food that I was consuming. This led me to develop patterns of dysfunctional and disordered eating. Where I once viewed food simply as fuel and enjoyment, now I was witnessing food in a reductionist manner as calories in and calories out. Something that had an entrenched moral focus attached to it.

“I began to fear food and the calories that came with it.”

I began to fear food and the calories that came with it.  Meticulously counting calories, knowing the exact caloric breakdown in every morsel of food that crossed my lips. It became an obsession. I was convinced that this was the only way that I could manage and survive every stressful situation that arose. Although I was excelling in college, not only meeting deadlines but also being awarded high results, my mental and physical health was continuing to deteriorate.  The ‘shoulds’ that I attached to the food that I consumed were both ruling and ruining my life. 

“As you can now see, my initial ‘interest’ in nutrition surfaced from quite a negative place.”

As you can now see, my initial ‘interest’ in nutrition surfaced from quite a negative place. When I reminisce on these times, I reflect with sorrow. I lost out on so many wonderful experiences and memories due to the all encompassing influence of these dysfunctional thoughts and behaviours.

Every decision that I made would be influenced by what I perceived as acceptable foods to consume. If I felt that this would result in breaking any of my ‘strict rules’, I would avoid those situations. I grew quite isolated and insular as a result. As you can imagine, this affected my relationship with family, friends and profoundly warped my sense of self. My tendency to control meant that the real me was concealed and I appeared cold and aloof to those around me. 

During these years, I also noticed a stark deterioration in my health, I was over- exercising and under-eating. I suffered from amenorrhea, chronic brain fog, debilitating anxiety, digestive issues and sleep issues. 

“Eventually, I acknowledged that something needed to change.”

Eventually, I acknowledged that something needed to change. I decided to seek out professional support through working with a therapist who specialised in disordered eating. I worked intensively with my therapist and slowly, I began to make measurable improvements. Detangling my dysfunctional thoughts and replace them with more measured, logical ones. 

Across this period of time, I was gaining better insights into my thoughts, feelings and behaviours and my anxiety slightly improved. My panic attacks were less frequent and I was becoming more flexible around food.

In spite of this progress, I was still feeling physically unwell. My digestion was still impaired. I had developed food sensitivities as a result of my years of restriction. I was also still dealing with chronic brain fog and sleep issues. This inspired me to seek out complementary modalities to aid in my recovery. The modality that stood out to me was nutrition. 

So what made you decide to study with IINH?

As I was working full time as a Post Primary Teacher, I was conscious that a part time course was the only option for me. The Diploma in Professional Nutrition & Health Coaching with the IINH was the perfect fit. 

It was one of the most enjoyable courses that I had participated in up to that point. It was exactly what I needed: to better understand the connections between nutrition and overall health and wellbeing. Engaging with the course taught me about the power and potential of nutrition; how it is so much more than just calories. It reframed my perception of food and I began to appreciate the wonders and complex simplicity of nutrition for both my physical and mental health. My studies also helped me acknowledge the bidirectional relationship between our gut and our brain and how the health of one influences the health of the other. 

I applied many of the key components of this module into my own daily routine. Within a few months, I noticed my digestive symptoms ease, my anxiety was not as intense and I felt overall less overwhelmed. In hindsight, this was transformational in my own recovery.

You have now progressed and are studying Nutritional Therapy. Did you always intended on this or was it a decision made after commencing the Nutrition & Health Coaching programme?

The simple answer to that is yes! My intention was to progress directly into Nutritional Therapy following on from my Diploma in Professional Nutrition & Health Coaching Course. However, soon after completing this course, I was offered a role as a Health and Wellbeing Advisor with the Department of Education.  A key component of this role is to offer continuous professional development to Post Primary teachers, teaching the subject SPHE (Social, Physical and Health Education). I felt that this was an amazing opportunity that I couldn’t refuse. I’m extremely passionate about the importance of educating our youth so that they feel enabled to develop a positive sense of themselves and a commitment to caring for themselves and others. 

“I’m extremely passionate about the importance of educating our youth so that they feel enabled to develop a positive sense of themselves and a commitment to caring for themselves and others.”

SPHE supports students to develop social skills, to enhance their self awareness, to develop coping mechanisms and problem solving skills and deal with the various stress and challenges in life, in a healthy manner. SPHE is designed to help students develop skills which will support their own personal reflection, their empathy towards others and themselves, as well as building resilience. 

My day job is extremely fulfilling, but very demanding and time consuming. For this reason, I decided to postpone my progression into Nutritional Therapy for a few years. During this time, I began working with clients (through a personalised and holistic approach) who also struggle with their relationship with food as well as a focus on supporting clients with digestive issues, mood and anxiety. Over the course of these years, I have witnessed clients transform their psychological and physical health through a combination of tailored health and lifestyle habit changes. This fuelled my desire to learn more about this field and so in 2020 I enrolled to study Nutritional Therapy with IINH.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering studying Nutrition and Health Coaching?

The best advice that I can offer to anyone considering studying Nutrition and Health Coaching is to consider their own personal ‘why’?  Why are you passionate about nutrition? Why is this a possible career path that you would like to explore? Why would you like to invest your time in this course?

If you feel a fire in your belly when you think about training in nutrition and working with clients to empower them to make consistent, measurable changes in their lives, then you are most certainly on the right track!

I know my ‘why’, even if it took years of adversity to find it.  I don’t have many regrets in life, but I do reflect with sadness on the years I lost to these disordered behaviours. My mind was constantly consumed with the food, but for the wrong reasons. This unhealthy relationship affected how I perceived almost everything in life. It also led me down a path of developing many health issues, which only grew more acute as the years passed. 

“Both my mental and physical health have never been in a better place. I owe much of that to the incredible learning through IINH, as well as the small yet consistent steps I took with the help of my therapist, amazing partner, family and close friends. “

As I write this article, I feel extremely fortunate to be at a point in my life where I have a much healthier and sustainable relationship with food. Even more importantly, with myself. Both my mental and physical health have never been in a better place. I owe much of that to the incredible learning through IINH, as well as the small yet consistent steps I took with the help of my therapist, amazing partner, family and close friends. 

My hope as I look forward to my future, is to continue to support clients to restore their health. Whether that be to support them with their own difficult relationship with food, and/or getting to the root of their digestive, mood or anxiety symptoms. Empowering them to make sustainable changes. Helping them to live a healthier, freer and more enjoyable life. One where food is viewed as something to nourish your body rather than something to fear!

There was a time in my life that I truly believed that reaching this point was unattainable. I am proof that living a life with sub-optimal health doesn’t need to be your reality. Change is possible, but reaching out for support is the first step. 

Connect with Denise

Would you like to learn more about Denise’s work as a Nutrition and Health Coach and the clients that she works with? You can contact her via email at [email protected] Alternatively, follow her on Instagram @foodproofhealth.

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