Conversations with Samantha Attard: Nutritionist, Ayurvedic Coach, Yoga Instructor, and Doula
Samantha Attard, PhD, is a Washington, DC-based ayurvedic coach, yoga instructor, doula, and founder of Happy Healthy Human. Samantha earned her PhD in Nutrition from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and uses the power of both Eastern and Western medicine to create integrative, personalized plans to help individuals reach optimal health through both mind and body. She specializes in helping people navigate some of the biggest changes they can face, such as pregnancy, career changes, and unbalanced hormones.
Tell us about your work.
When people ask me what I do, I say that I help people find balance and bliss. I use Ayurveda and yoga to develop personalized routines and diets that help them feel good. My goal is to help my clients tap into their authentic selves and realize what habits, exercise, jobs, relationships, and lifestyles help them feel their best - not worrying if it’s the in vogue diet of the day. I also have a podcast - Happy Healthy Human Radio - where I share yoga sequences, recipes, and big life lessons in digestible bites!
Can you give us a brief lesson on Ayurveda and what exactly it is?
GREAT question! Ayurveda, by definition, is the science of life. It’s the ancient Indian system of medicine and healing that ultimately was the basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Ayurveda is both science and art. While the ancient doctors of Ayurveda had an amazing understanding nerves and biological systems (they had a book of surgery over 4,000 years ago!!), their guiding philosophy is that we as humans are part of a greater whole - we cannot be separated from our outside environment or indeed the universe. What happens externally affects our internal world and vice versa. From this understanding, they created guideline and practices to help you balance your internal world based on what you’re experiencing.
Most people are familiar with the “doshas” which I think of as the Myers-Brigg personality types of Ayurveda. The doshas are vata, pitta, and kapha. Vata explains the airy, creative energy we see in people like Johnny Depp. Pitta is the sharp, smart, fire and charisma you could see in someone like Brad Pitt. And kapha is the stable, strong, easy-going, and nurturing energy that makes me think of Seth Rogan. We all have a combination of vata, pitta, and kapha in us, and when we see how these forces act in our lives, we can better understand ourselves as well as what we need to do to thrive.
The best way to get started in Ayurveda is to learn about your own dosha and understand what these three different energies are like!
How did you get started in this field?
I got started in the health and wellness field first through personal experimentation back in high school and college. When I was an undergrad in New York City, I had amazing yoga teachers who introduced me to the world of Ayurveda, and the self-knowledge and practices were truly transformative for my digestion and well-being. Meanwhile, life in NYC exposed me to farmer’s markets, organic food, and the farm to table movement. I ended up going down to UNC Chapel Hill to get a PhD in nutrition because I knew that our food system and diets have the greatest impact on our health and well-being.
In doing my PhD, I realized that even now, we have a lot to learn from the ancient Ayurvedic practitioners. So I married my knowledge of Western nutrition, psychology, and behavior change with the ancient practices of Ayurveda and yoga to help people make smart, sustainable, and satisfying choices.
Where does your motivation come from?
I know what it feels like to try SO hard to do the right thing for your body and life. I’ve spent hours poring over health research and articles to try to figure out the “right” way to eat and exercise. On the other hand, I know what it’s like to be swayed by personal opinion. In the past, I made a lot of decisions out of fear and what other people would think. I learned that doing this wasn’t bringing happiness to myself or others. As I started to build my own self-esteem and confidence, to live in alignment with what felt authentic to me, I got happier AND healthier.
Most of us have a very simple goal from life - to be “happy and healthy”. But what does that mean? It means being true to yourself. It means honoring your body and doing things that bring you into balance, not out of it.
I know what denying your intuition feels like, and I don’t want anyone I know to go through that.
What’s your diet like?
My diet is a vata-pacifying, vegan diet. After about 7 years of playing on and off with vegetarian/vegan, I took the plunge last July and haven’t looked back since. Amazingly, the thing that really made me switch wasn’t the health impacts of meat, it’s the social/environmental of meat production. My best friend in grad school did her work in pig farms of North Carolina, and the harmful effects on the the animals, workers, environment, and community were just too big for me to ignore any longer.
Beyond that, I follow a vata pacifying diet, which means lots of cooked, warm, sweet and sour foods. I love sweet potatoes (my husband even included them when he proposed to me!), and my morning cooked apple and hot chocolate makes the world a better place (for me anyway).
I eat a lot of zoodles and sweet potato noodles with different sauces and pestos, lentil soups (also known as kitchari), and my desserts are often warmed up banana with peanut butter and dark chocolate.
What’s your approach to nutrition, or do you have a food philosophy?
My approach to nutrition is to focus on how a food will help me feel. In Ayurveda, we’re asked to be intimately aware of the fact that what we eat will ultimately make up our body. We literally are what we eat. And so we have to be good stewards of our bodies and eat food that will balance our bodies and minds. I’m not about denying pleasure or pleasurable foods, but I am always aware of when food is “worth it” or not.
For example, even though I love ice cream...I’m lactose intolerant. Eating dairy is NOT worth what my body feels like when I finish eating it. On the other hand, a vegan pastry might get me a little buzzed on sugar and kind of angry (it’s so weird but I seriously get croissant rage). But sometimes...it’s REALLY worth having that cinnamon roll. So I don’t ever feel like I’m denying my body pleasure, but I always weigh the taste of food with the impact it has on my body and mood.
I’m not into “cheat days” or “working off” calories. In Ayurveda, the attitude you bring to your food is as important as the food that you eat. So you can eat a cheeseburger mindfully and with love and it will be more healthy than a green smoothie that you eat with self-loathing and fear.
What’s one food you couldn’t live without?
No question...Peanut Butter (or other nut butters).
How do you handle “unhealthy” food cravings?
If I have an unhealthy food craving, I first check in to see where it could be coming from. Am I in a bad mood? Worried or anxious? Am I just hungry and the smell of pizza is wafting by? I get curious about where the craving is coming from.
And if something comes up again and again (for example...I’ve been craving soft pretzels for a few weeks), I will find a way to make it a celebration. I’ll spend time looking up recipes to fid the perfect one. I’ll gather the ingredients. I’ll come up with a meal or activity to build around it. And then I’ll bake (or go out to the place to procure said crave-worthy food!). So by the time that I actually get the food, I’ve gotten to experience all of the anticipation, joy, and excitement. The pleasure lasts way longer than just the 4 minutes it takes to eat the pretzel. It became an adventure.
And (usually) because it’s become part of a larger narrative, I don’t have to binge on 7 pretzels. I eat enough. And then I’ll have some the next day. And when they’re done...I’m done.
What are your favorite ways to stay active?
Definitely yoga is my favorite daily practice. I’m always amazed that after 12 years of practicing yoga, I still feel the calm, joy, and strength of these poses.
I also enjoy doing Peloton or spin class about 3 times per week. I really enjoy getting my heart rate up and feeling sweat without the impact of running or HIIT classes. PLUS the good music and motivation makes it feel like a party.
Lastly - walking is a favorite pasttime. It’s calming, I can put in my favorite podcast, and just be out in the world. Long weekend walks are my favorite.
What are 3 tips for someone looking to change their fitness and nutrition habits?
If someone’s looking to change their fitness and nutrition habits, I’d first ask them why. Why does something need to change? Is it your energy, your weight, acne, or another symptom? Be really clear on WHAT is driving these changes and make sure that it is a reason that’s important to you. Your why is going to be so important as you determine what you want to change.
Second, I would advise you to start slow. See where you are in your exercise/nutrition and make the SMALLEST, EASIEST change that you can. Usually we have a nagging suspicion of what or how we want to change - do the thing that feels most obvious and easy to implement first.
Lastly, engage your social network or other support. Tell your partner or coworker what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Ask them to help you stick with it. There are a few benefits here: firstly, if they’re not supportive...you have some really important information about the people in your life. And if they are supportive, they’re going to help keep you accountable when things get tough. A coach or trainer can be really useful here too, but we aren’t with you 24 hours each day, and the more people that know, the easier it will be to sustain those changes happen.
What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?
I love being out in my vegetable garden, reading for hours in bed, taking long walks with my husband, and planning travel to new cities and countries! My new favorite pasttime is being aunt to my two-year-old niece that just moved to DC!
Favorite quote to live by.
Here are two that come up for me again and again:
“You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” - Rumi
“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake.” - George Bernard Shaw