Making sense out of food, health and life

Austin web developer Catherine Vo is on a mission to help

In a field where gauzy New Age concepts often bump up against the dense language of Western science, Austin health coach Catherine Vo speaks and writes with a refreshing mix of breezy prudence and carefully vetted research.

“Yes, I love yoga, and I firmly believe meditation can rewire your brain,” she says. “I’m all about neuroplasticity. But I’m not this typical health guru. I want to help people like me, who love food and health but don’t want a coach who is judgmental.”

At the same time calm and animated, Vo, 32, chats about her nutritional quest over a peppery avocado quinoa salad.

“I totally believe in Western medicine,” says the writer of the well-regarded Savory Wellness blog ( “All the quinoa in the world is not going to cure that brain tumor. Take that sucker out. Need antibiotics? Get antibiotics. But I also emphasize that preventative medicine can go a long way.”

Vo, whose Catholic parents immigrated from Vietnam to Tuscaloosa, Ala., where her father is a math professor, arrived at this life balance after the normal American doses of misdirection.

“It was challenging,” says the youngest of six girls. “I had a lot of pressure to bring up the rear, so to speak. It was a strict household. I’m grateful for that in retrospect.”

A bookworm as a child, Vo also liked to sing and dance. She competed to be heard in family settings, which might explain her calm/animated persona.

Early on, she attended the demanding Indian Springs boarding school outside Birmingham, Ala.

“It was an awesome place,” she says. “All the weirdos from other schools got to go. We could just be ourselves. It wasn’t too clique-y either. I’d be a completely different person without that school.”

After Indian Springs, Vo headed to Columbia University in New York City to study computer science and engineering. Yet her intellectual curiosity led her elsewhere.

“I’d be the only computer student in Swedish class,” she laughs. “So I transferred to liberal arts my senior year.”

That choice made her education-directed parents pause. Vo soon landed a job as a web developer and settled into the rapidly evolving Williamsburg/Greenpoint district in Brooklyn for four years.

“I left with a clean slate,” she says. “I was under the illusion that I was contributing something awesome to New York, but I was just feeding off the energy. After all, I was a web developer!”

Her savvy sisters chased careers in technology, teaching and design. Three of them now live in Texas. That proximity — and the lure of taking a more active hand in her career — brought her to Austin in May 2009.

As did the food.

“I love Cajun, barbecue and Southern food,” she says. “I’m not trying to dis New York city restaurants. Sometimes you miss the culture around the food.”

Arriving without a job, Vo chose instead to engage in “career detox.”

“I had to find out what made me tick,” she says. “I’d wake up early re-energized. Just enjoyed living. It was a total luxury. I recognize this. Not everybody can do this. But if I didn’t do it then, I’d never be able to do it.”

While detoxing from careerism, Vo noticed she didn’t always feel physically well.

“I started to pay closer attention to my health,” she says. “And I took a lot of steps to fix it.”

When she resumed web development, Vo also threw herself into training as a health and lifestyle coach.

“It’s so deeply integrated into your life, it’s hard separate your eating habits from your lifestyle,” she says. “How do you help people expand their options and give them more choices?”

Vo discovered that many people confused food intolerance with allergies.

“It’s one of the biggest misunderstandings in diet and health,” she says. “With intolerance, there’s no swelling, no throat restriction, no immediate physical outbreak. That makes intolerance sneaky.”

Essentially, as she explains it, with food intolerance, the body doesn’t recognize the entity in the stomach and intestines.

“Over time, your body doesn’t know how to process it,” she says, choosing her words delicately. “If the food doesn’t break down, bad bacteria grows in your gut. It becomes the origin of silent, deadly health problems, obesity, problems with hormones.”

After allergy testing, Vo looked long and selectively at the food she was eating, dropping 8 or 9 pounds, while learning how to help others.

“The gut is truly the only barrier between your brain and the food moving into your bloodstream,” she says. “That’s not a lot, so treat it well.”

More recently, she’s been working on a program or workshop to help people with digital detoxing, pulling them away from computer and mobile screens, which some scientists say imbalances the brain, especially early and late in the day.

“People texting in cars, picking up phones when they first wake up, not interacting with each other in restaurants,” she says. “That really bothers me. Drives me insane. I’m not against technology. I’m a web person. I want to live with technology, not have it consume every impulse.”

Part of what appeals to even casual readers of her blog is Vo’s self-evident common sense, especially at a time when specialists recognize the nutritional data might be less important than the motivational technique.

“It’s about what you add into your life, not deprivation,” she says. “It’s not about how much information you know. It’s more interesting to find out why people are not doing something because of a mental block. People also want drastic change quickly. It takes a little bit of time.”

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