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I was thinking, “This woman eats fast food at least three times a week?”
“She eats bleached, refined-flour foods like white bread, and she has diabetes? Where is the protein in her diet? Where are the fresh and local seasonal vegetables? What do you mean you eat only canned vegetables?”
This lady could benefit from some nutritional education, I thought.
She had previously shared about having diabetes, hypertension, elevated cholesterol, iron deficiency (anemia), and obesity.
Being a naïve, straight-out-of-grad-school nutritionist, I asked her why she didn’t eat any protein like chicken, beans, or eggs. I emphasized the importance of switching to whole grains and swapping out white rice for quinoa or brown rice. I stressed the importance of eating three balanced, healthy meals daily. I went on and on about the benefits of eating seasonal, local, organic vegetables and how they were healthier than the canned vegetables she was eating.
I intended to empower her to take active control of her health, but little did I know I was doing the opposite.
She politely agreed and then explained that she couldn’t afford any of those foods.
She shared how she was lucky to have access to white bread and that on some days, white bread with strawberry jelly was all she ate. I tried my best to pull my privileged-middle-class foot out of my mouth as I was overwhelmed with guilt at my blatant insensitivity.
This was the turning point in my career. I had a realization there was a gap between my educational background and actual reality. I had spent the last four years passionately pursuing my master’s degree in integrative health and nutrition, eagerly learning about all the promising healing properties of plant-based whole foods, their potent phytonutrients, and their beneficial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
I knew this type of information like the back of my hand and didn’t think twice about eagerly sharing it in hopes of helping people heal. However, as my experience deepened, I was awakened from my ideological perspective that as healing and beneficial as these foods were, some vulnerable populations had no access to them. This started to sink in.
The harsh truth was reiterated time and time again, especially when I would teach in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods or homeless shelters where students had never heard of some of the common vegetables or fruits that I would introduce during our cooking classes.
I had a second wake-up call when making nutritional recommendations for people of different cultural backgrounds. I realized that there was a mental and spiritual aspect to food beyond serving it as fuel for our physical bodies. Food was a nostalgic bridge that connected us to our heritage and culture. It was a part of our identity.
How do you ask someone who has diabetes and has been eating white rice their whole life because it’s a major staple in their culture to omit it from their diet completely?
Do we dismiss centuries of ancestral traditions around eating certain foods and force them to adopt our Western idea of a healthy diet? What about cultural practices tied to religious traditions, as I had experienced with some Latin women who followed restricted post-partum diets? Does respecting people’s traditions come first?
These different experiences led me to understand that there is no rigid, one-size-fits-all healthy diet or lifestyle.
To make practical, realistic nutritional recommendations sensitive to each person’s unique situation, we have to find creative ways to use our concrete, nutritional science background while also being fluid. Many interconnected factors like culture, socioeconomic status, health conditions, bio-individuality, environment, mental health, and current life circumstances must be considered for optimal health.
As integrative health nutritionists, we need to see the big picture and coordinate the intricate balance between these factors.
While the ultimate goal is to guide people on their journey to improved health, it’s obvious that the road is far from straight and narrow.