​Sewanee’s Anti-Diet Dietician

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

Mary Pate-Bennett often doesn’t subscribe to convention when it comes to healthy eating. A registered dietician in Sewanee, she challenges the morality assigned to food and society’s message that thin is better.
“I feel as if we all have some type of disordered eating, we all have issues with food,” she said. “There are very few people who are just intuitive eaters and who don’t think about food and just live their lives.”
Becoming a healthy intuitive eater, with reduced food-related guilt are worthy goals, she said.
“For a lot of people it is very emotional talking about food, why they eat the way they do, where they eat and the types of food they eat,” Pate-Bennett said. “There’s a lot of shame involved so it does take some opening up and talking to figure out how to heal them and get on the right path for learning how to eat the foods that are going to make them feel the best.”
She dislikes diets and said weight loss is not her primary motivation, nor her definition of success. People in small bodies can still have diabetes and heart disease, she said, and often genetics dictate someone’s size. Body acceptance is an important tenet to her practice.
“In our society we are presented with the idea that if you are in a large body then you must be unhealthy and you need to lose weight to be healthy. The science doesn’t say that’s true,” she said. “You can be in a large body and have diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, but you can be in a large body and have absolutely no issues.”
Pate-Bennett grew up in Sewanee and attended St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School, like her four siblings. She graduated from the University of the South with an undergraduate degree in psychology.
While working in the kitchen at a French bistro in Nashville (where she met her husband), she changed course and decided to pursue nutrition as a career. Pate-Bennett earned her undergraduate degree from Middle Tennessee State University and her graduate degree from the University of Tennessee.
She moved to San Diego, where her husband’s family lives, and worked there as a dietician in a hospital prior to working at the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program. She and her husband, James, moved to Sewanee a few years ago to raise their daughter, who is now two-years-old.
Pate-Bennett is a mixture of counselor and nutritionist, helping people remove the guilt and power that food has over their lives. Eating comes with so many conditions, she said, some established in childhood when kids had to clear their plate or food was used as a reward.
“My goal with clients is to help them realize how many rules they’ve set up for themselves,” she said. “Eating dessert without deserving it makes them feel guilty and they will punish themselves and the next day they’ll eat clean or healthy.”
She said she strives to break the diet-binge cycle and the assigning of labels to food.
“There’s all these ideas around foods that put them in a category they should not be put in,” she said. “Food should not be used for these negative emotional reasons but our society sets it up to do that.”
When it comes to cognitive therapy, Pate-Bennett said that is not her specialty, so sometimes she refers clients to therapists to help tackle underlying challenges.
Therapist Kate Gunderson has worked with some of Pate-Bennett’s clients.
“Mary’s emphasis on ‘intuitive eating’ jibes well with cognitive therapy, offering a means to reframe eating habits,” Gunderson said. “Banished are diet books, starvation, food police, self-recrimination. Instead the cognitive process encourages awareness of ‘internal monologue,’ positive self-talk and engagement in life-affirming activities.”
Gunderson said she has heard positive feedback from those who have sought Pate-Bennett’s expertise.
“Clients who see Mary report feeling heard, supported and aided on their path towards healthy and sustainable dietary changes,” Gunderson said. “Mary is a bright, committed and caring practitioner—a real asset in our small community.”
Pate-Bennett said she is very happy with her career choice and its rewards.
“It’s immensely satisfying to see the changes in people, seeing people who maybe have not been completely relieved of their guilt with food but who just feel significantly better about it,” she said. “Just helping people wade through all the information that’s out there is satisfying.”
Pate-Bennett is also a certified lactation counselor. Visits are by appointment only at her office at the University Wellness Center Annex. For more information, call (931) 636-8669 or visit <mountaindietitian.com>.