NEWS

These 5 Latina Dietitians are Embracing Cultural Staples

Food pyramid of traditional Latinx food staples.

Amelia Manley / Verywell

Common food staples in Latinx communities, like white or yellow rice and tortillas, are often some of the first dishes people in wellness spaces suggest cutting when striving toward a healthy diet. But some dietitians are trying to change that. 

Instead, they want people to maintain a healthy lifestyle without sacrificing their culture.

Nutritionists and dietitians are speaking out on why a lack of representation can be harmful to Latinxs and other people of color seeking help to form a better relationship with food. 

Only 6% of current dietitians identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“As I entered the academic space of nutrition learning about ‘healthy foods,’ I quickly saw an erasure of the foods I ate growing up and an over acceptance of foods that were deemed ‘healthy,’” Zariel Grullón, RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian in the New York City area who educates people of color on nutrition through her blog, No More Chichos, tells Verywell. “This inspired me to commit to working in this space so folks could feel represented and heard when they spoke to a dietitian, to be able to have someone understand their foods, their culture, and help them in an unbiased way.”

Verywell spoke to five Latina dietitians who shared how they combat this messaging to help people base their diets around nutrient and culturally-rich foods.

It Starts With Education

When Krista Linares, RDN, a registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition con Sabor in Los Angeles, was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome and multiple food allergies in her early 20s, she struggled with fitting her cultural foods into the advice she was reading online on how to manage her conditions.

“Family meals became a source of stress for me because I wanted to manage my health, but I felt that was pulling me away from my cultural foods and in turn, my community,” Linares tells Verywell. “As I began to learn more about nutrition, I realized that the problem wasn't that my cultural foods didn't fit into a healthy diet, but just that the people providing nutrition resources didn't know about my cultural foods, and there weren't any resources connecting nutrition and Latin food culture.”

Why do some nutrition professionals themselves often advise their patients to avoid Latinx staples? According to Malena Perdomo, RDN, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Denver, Colorado, it is difficult to be knowledgeable on foods from all Latin American countries.

“Our profession needs more diverse students and a more diverse background of professionals, which is one of the reasons I became a part-time professor of nutrition,” Perdomo tells Verywell. “There are cultural competencies and [educational resources] available for RDNs, but we need more research on what works in our communities and less cookie-cutter ideas of health and wellness.”

According to Starla Garcia, MEd, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian and owner of The Healthy Shine in Houston, Texas, because some non-Latinx dietitians aren’t educated on the matter, they may feel unsure about how to approach discussions of cultural foods at all.

“For me, it may be easier to interact with various populations, even though I am a Latina and that’s my background, because I’ve had that training in my previous positions working in a hospital setting in a very diverse city,” Garcia tells Verywell. “However, it’s possible that many of my colleagues in less diverse metropolitan parts of the country haven’t [worked with diverse communities] and would benefit from cultural competency- and sensitivity-focused training.”

Food Taken Out of Context

In addition to the vilification of certain foods, Linares notes another interesting phenomenon is currently infiltrating the nutrition space: Historically Latin American foods are being repurposed as superfoods.

“Chia seeds, for example, have seen such aggressive marketing toward health-conscious, upper-middle-class women that it's no longer common knowledge that they are actually a Latin-American food,” she says. “There's a dynamic where some dietitians are really embracing these ingredients for their health benefits, while others are pushing back against them as a marker of dietary elitism. But both groups are kind of missing the bigger point that we've taken this food out of its cultural context.”

While non-Latinx dietitians may accept some individual ingredients, Linares says they are still trying to place them in the context of American and Eurocentric meal patterns.

“Dietitians may recommend people choose between rice or beans to make room for more vegetables or protein on their plates when for many Latinos, these two foods belong together culturally, and nutritionally speaking, they complement each other as well,” she says.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All For Latinxs

Understanding food in the context of an individual’s life matters too. That’s why, when it comes to creating a nutrition plan for her Latinx clients, Perdomo uses an individualized approach. 

“We come from so many different countries that we can’t generalize and assume that all Latinos eat the same foods,” Perdomo says. “Similarly, just because I am Latina RDN doesn’t mean I’m an expert in all Latin cultures.”

Perdomo works with her clients on how to keep their favorite foods as part of their nutrition plans. At the same time, she helps them think about how these foods are prepared and where they can make changes to improve their overall health.  

“I encourage people to get rid of the mentality that certain foods, like tortillas, for example, are ‘bad’ and that they can’t have them,” she says. “There’s a lot of misinformation and dieting obsession, even within our own culture. It hurts a lot of people, my profession, and what we do.” 

Gabrielle Mancella, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian in Orlando, Florida, also educates her clients on the foods they typically eat so that they can choose where to adjust their intake based on what they like or do not like. 

“Some foods are simply not optional to completely eliminate. For example, rice, lentils, and corn-based tortillas are common staples [in Latin-American cultures],” Mancella tells Verywell. “It’s important that the client understands what these foods are and how they impact their health. They’re all high in carbohydrates. From there, they can feel empowered to choose what they want to limit or restrict at each meal and alternate for different foods.”

What This Means For You

More dietitians are offering remote or virtual sessions rather than only in-person visits, making it easier for people to access professionals that may best suit their needs. You can use Diversify Dietetics to get help finding a dietitian of color.

Getting Rid of Guilt

Still, many nutritionists fail to take cultural considerations into account. This can lead to a strain in the relationship Latinx clients have with food. 

“Some of my clients have shared with me that they’ve felt there aren’t enough dietitians out there who would take their cultural foods into account and understand that it’s important to them to be able to keep them in,” Garcia says. “They didn’t want the guilt that came with the idea that they fell off the diet their previous dietitian gave them, but wanted affirmation that it wasn’t they weren’t motivated enough, but rather that the plan wasn’t fitting their lifestyle because they had these cultural needs that weren’t being met or fulfilled.”

In her conversations with clients, Grullón tries to sweep aside these feelings of guilt.

“One of the first questions I ask my patients is ‘what’s your favorite food?’ because I think this is a really important beginning point in the conversation to break the ice and help them understand that I’m not going to demonize their food choices,” Grullón adds. “It also gives me a better sense of how they relate to those foods: Do they feel guilt in sharing? Are they happy to tell me about it? If there’s any guilt, I quickly cut [those feelings] out by communicating that food is neutral and that my job here is not to tell them what they can and cannot eat.”

How to Advocate for Yourself and Your Culture

Linares emphasizes the importance of clients advocating for their cultural foods and setting boundaries along their health and nutrition journey. 

“It's appropriate for a dietitian to make recommendations around how you eat, serve, and portion your meals as well emphasize nutrients, but it's not appropriate for a dietitian to tell you to completely cut out a food, barring an allergy, especially when it has cultural or emotional significance to you,” she says. “A relationship with a dietitian requires trust and openness. Any non-Latinx dietitians will be very open and willing to learn. But if you find you have to explain your cultural foods or answer questions about your culture more often, it’s up to you to decide if this dynamic works for you.”

Garcia adds that it’s important for clients to discuss how they’re connected to their cultures beyond food.

“Working with a dietitian who is going to take you into account as a whole person and give you a holistic approach will help communities of color understand and implement health in a way that will preserve their culture,” she says.

Above all, Grullón says dietitians should see clients as individuals. Your healthcare professional should not be putting you in a box based on your demographic.

“Only you know your body and how and what you eat. If a provider (doctor, dietitian, etc.) is making assumptions about what you eat, take a deep breath and correct them,” Grullón says. “When speaking with a non-BIPOC dietitian, focus on goals that are important to you—from movement to meals—the goals you make as a team should relate back to what you want to improve on.”

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