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A Conversation with Shanteena Sirithar About Ambition, Career Development, & Legacy

Shanteena Sirithar’s passion for psychology and environmental sustainability informed her desire to help find a career that can make a positive impact in the world.  She started classes at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, in 2011, striving for an undergraduate degree in life sciences.  Shanteena began her years at McMaster certain that she wanted […]

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Shanteena Sirithar
Shanteena Sirithar

Shanteena Sirithar’s passion for psychology and environmental sustainability informed her desire to help find a career that can make a positive impact in the world.  She started classes at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, in 2011, striving for an undergraduate degree in life sciences.  Shanteena began her years at McMaster certain that she wanted to be in healthcare, and she eventually settled on a heavy course load of environmental studies, focusing on the theme of the direct and indirect impacts the environment has on one’s overall health and wellbeing.  

Once she finished her life sciences degree, she reflected on the psychology part of her education.  Her insights into human behavior from both a biological and “nature vs. nurture” standpoint helped her better understand how people make the lifestyle choices they do.  Shanteena went on to earn a degree in Public Health and Safety from Ryerson University in Toronto with an end goal to be a public health inspector, which she did from 2017 to 2019 during a two-year program during which she earned a Bachelors in Applied Science in Public Health and Safety and went on to finish her practicum training.  

The timing of the launch of Shanteena’s professional career put her right in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which she managed a plethora of demanding job responsibilities, including dealing with infectious diseases and instituting preventative measures to protect the public during outbreaks, all in addition to her day-to-day inspections of food and water.  The experiences may have pushed her to limits she didn’t even know she had, but it made her skillset in public health that much stronger.  

Another component of Shanteena’s life has been a continuing battle with medical issues.  First was a diagnosis with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy as a young girl and then PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome), which led to weight related issues that brought on mental health issues.  After years of insecurity concerning her weight, her mother passed away not long after Shanteena obtained her undergraduate degree at McMaster University.  This set up a chain of events that led her to take a comprehensive look at her health and fitness, both the physical and mental variety, which inspired her to become a certified personal trainer through Body Design University.  It has been a long journey for Shanteena, but it has helped her to create positive outcomes for herself and the world.

In the last few years, what lifestyle, habit, or behavior change has had the biggest positive impact on your life?

I was always stuck in this yo-yo dieting mentality where I wanted to lose 30 pounds within a very short period of time and was always forcing myself to use these extreme methods.  I had this sense of urgency to lose weight and I never understood why until I realized it’s because I was not being patient with myself, and I was not willing to make lifestyle changes.  Women especially are always told that they have to use these extreme methods like cutting out dairy, sugar, and carbs in order to achieve their health goals.  Being who I am, over time I began to feel it was kind of unfair that I was dealt the wrong cards in relation to my weight.  I was always forced to make these changes whereas everyone else got to live more comfortably and free, getting to eat the foods that they wanted to eat without worry.  That always bothered me.  But I realized a lot of that was my own negative mindset, so I started to show much more appreciation for what my body had done in the past and to be a little bit gentler on myself.  Every time I stepped on the scale, I’d remind myself that it’s okay to see my weight fluctuate.  It is okay to understand that fluctuation is natural and to adopt a mindset where having things in moderation is desirable.  Having things in excess can create health issues, but in terms of having a better overall mental health, allowing myself to have things in moderation significantly increased a positive relationship with food.  I don’t binge on food anymore, and it’s created a huge positive impact on my life and wellbeing.

When you feel unfocused, what do you do?

I think losing focus is bound to happen in everyone’s day-to-day life.  We’re going to have days where we feel off or we don’t feel able to accomplish the things that we wanted to.  When that happens to me, I take a minute to breathe and relax.  What I do is remind myself that this is just one day.  Oftentimes, if I’m in a funk, I’ll either work out to bring my energy back up or I’ll try to find something to do that carries a little bit of personal meaning towards me, and that will help me focus.

Sometimes food is to blame if I feel unfocused.  It is the thing that can make or break my day.  On days where I eat more junk food, I’m in a depressive, funky mood, and it can often make me feel unfocused and overwhelmed.  Whereas eating more unprocessed foods like kale, spinach or green, leafy vegetables keeps me in a more positive state throughout the day.  

What advice would you give a smart and ambitious recent college graduate? What advice should they ignore?

Focus on yourself.  Ignore the distractions.  It may seem like the time to do everything, because we always feel like we’re stuck on this timeline whereby the time you’re 20 you have to graduate college, start a business, or get out in the world and make an impact.  I think when we’re young, we all feed into this toxic mentality where we overvalue productivity, and we undermine our own ability to be self-aware and to slow down and take stock of things.  If you’re trying so hard to push yourself to the place where you want to be, you run the risk of not getting there because you’re so overworked.

Advice to ignore is spending all your money at once.  That’s one mistake that I made when I was young.  I would just blow my money on ridiculous things.  Start saving when you’re young.  I wish I had started saving money from each paycheck.  I’m almost 28 now and I value money a lot more now than I did then.  Spend on realistic things.  It’s okay to want frivolous things but having a savings plan is ideal.  Don’t feed into the materialistic lifestyle that everyone else may be trying to live.  Take care of your house and take care of yourself because ultimately that’s the only thing that’s going to save you.

What is one lifestyle trend that excites you?

I love the whole vegan movement.  I’ve tried being a vegan.  I’ve struggled in the past, especially when trying to meet my protein goals.  I have significantly tried to adopt a more plant-based approach to my diet, meaning I try not to eat as many processed foods.  I eat as many clean sources of proteins, fruits and vegetables as possible.  I think it’s nice to see people stepping away from eating junk and becoming more health conscious.  Generations in the past weren’t as health-conscious and weren’t fueling their bodies properly, and I think that has led to the emergence of new diseases over time.  It’s exciting to see more people step out of that and take more control of their own lifestyle and purposefully make changes and to see those changes being reflected in their day-to-day life.

But mainstream culture still idolizes toxic diet culture, where the goal is adopting extreme deficits to lose a significant amount of weight in a short period of time. I too fell prey to this, and I think a lot of it had to do with information overload. Overtime, I also found that adopting a more vegan lifestyle is very difficult. Granted, I understand how difficult it is hard changing your eating behaviors because it’s something you’re not used to, and you have to learn as you go.  Finding different recipes and working with ingredients you have never worked with before.  It’s like starting a new job.  When you first start you feel like you don’t know anything.  You lack all this experience and you’re just trying to catch up.  But the more experience you have, the better you get at that job and the easier it becomes.  It almost becomes second nature.  That’s like any lifestyle change; it starts out difficult, but it gets easier. Eating vegan was very difficult for me at the beginning but I found a system that works.  I try to incorporate as many plant-based foods into my lifestyle as my macro allows for and wherever I’m lacking is where I will supplement with my meat, so I’ll have eggs, fish, and chicken just to meet my protein goals. This is a system that I found works best for someone like me.    

Who has been the biggest influence in your life and why?

The biggest influence in my life has been my mother, only because I wouldn’t have felt the need to have this much control over my life if it weren’t for her passing.  It sounds strange to say it when I put it that way, but I feel like when your mom is there it’s easy to not pay attention to things because your mom is babying you and doing everything for you.  I was less self-aware and more careless when my mom was still around, and I didn’t care to make those changes.  

Now that my mom is not around, I felt almost abandoned, which is a weird feeling.  I started to see that nobody was 100% for me. They always say that nobody can compete with a mother’s love.  It is true:  Your mom was the most selfless person, and she would do anything for you.  It was almost like once that was taken away, then I had to become that person for myself.  I saw it in my surroundings; no matter where I went for comfort, I couldn’t find the same thing that my mom provided for me, so I started providing that for myself.  I had to show myself more self-love.  I learned to value myself and respect myself much more, achieve a sense of self-worth, and that’s sort of what influenced me the most.

What’s one of the biggest life lessons you’ve learned?

There are multiple life lessons that are important to me, like learning how to respect my boundaries and to value myself, and also to recognize when someone is taking advantage of me.  In my work life, I’ve established boundaries within myself, setting standards and expecting people to meet me there.  You cannot set your standards too low.  When you’re new and inexperienced, it’s easy to be taken advantage of because you want to prove your worth, but you must remember at the same time that your mental health comes first.  That’s my boundary.  I can go above and beyond for someone or something, but I will not compromise my mental health in the process. That is the line I draw. I will always have to come first.  That was a hard lesson for me to learn because I was way too giving in the past.  As a result, I think people took advantage of that.  It was easy for that to happen because I had didn’t realize that my low sense of self-respect was only being reflected to me through other people.  

What do you think it is that makes you/someone successful?

You know the saying, “Fall seven times, stand up eight.”  I think it is important to remind yourself that one day everything will just come together. Because eventually every break down will get you to your break through.  It’s important, though, not to go into it blindly, but to be really aware of what you’re doing, even when you’re feeling down.  Recognize what worked and what didn’t work in the past and just move forward.  I think over time, you will start to put the pieces together, and then it inevitably starts to get better and better and better.  That just goes with trying.  If you never try, you’ll never know.

How do you stay motivated?

I think the concept of motivation is misconstrued because I don’t think anyone stays motivated 100% of the time.  I think it’s really all about discipline.  In terms of motivation, I think I’ve just disciplined myself to do what I need to do, treat it almost like going to a job.  If you don’t show up to your 9-to-5, you’re not going to get paid.  It’s the same concept.  If you don’t work out, you’re not going to see the fruits of your labor, which is physique goals.  If you don’t hit your calorie goals, you are not going to the end goal, whether that be weight loss or improved health.  It’s all about discipline and knowing that you’ve got to do things even when you don’t want to do them. You’ve got to show up for yourself, and that’s how you stay motivated.  It’s creating foolproof systems of discipline and following through with them to the point of it becoming part of your lifestyle.

What legacy do you hope to leave behind?

My goal is to help all my clients build a healthier relationship with food and achieve a sense of comfort and freedom around food. To leave behind the scarcity mindset, which often leads to binge-eating behaviours and eating disorders. This is something I’ve been working on myself. Creating a more functional relationship with food, while becoming the voice of moderation and self-love. It is upsetting to see the amount of fat-shaming that exists within our community and in the past, it is something I’ve personally taken to heart. I hope that I can positively impact as many people as possible and to show that all food is love and we should not be shamed into starving or depriving ourselves to fit society’s expectations of what we should look like and who we should be.  

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