How to overcome the oppressive whiteness of 'clean eating'

James Ross / Stocksy
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What does the phrase “clean eating” bring to mind? A kale smoothie? A grain bowl? Zoodles? If these titans of blandness are considered clean, are the mélanges of flavor, fat, and carbs that appear in many of our cultural staples such as mofongo, biryani, or shrimp and grits considered … dirty? A cadre of forward-thinking dietitians want to broaden the concept of eating healthy beyond popular notions of the term, which generally stem from white, upper middle-class communities. Rather than advising people of color to trade the pork or rice they grew up eating for chicken breast or cauliflower, they want to help them find a healthy diet without abandoning the foods they often consider central, not only to their culture, but to their identity.

Registered dietitian nutritionists Tamara Melton and Deanna Belleny co-founded Atlanta-based Diversify Dietetics, a nonprofit that provides mentorship, career guidance, and other resources to students of color and early-career professionals in the overwhelmingly white nutrition and dietetics field. Although dietetics education programs have seen increased enrollment of Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, and American Indian and Alaskan students between 1998 to 2018, the number of Black students fell by 5.5% during that time period, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Despite diversity gains, students of color remain disproportionately underrepresented. In 2018, 13.7% of students or interns enrolled in dietetics education programs were Latinx and even less — around 5.7% — were Black. Meanwhile, 66.7% were white. This disparity reflects a perpetuation of only one kind of healthy, and that’s not realistic.

“The more professionals we have from different cultures, the better we can serve our patients,” says Melton, who lives in Atlanta. She recalls a Southeast Asian woman who told her she felt “an impending sense of doom” after a white dietitian said during a counseling session that people from her culture cooked with too much oil and fat. “Food is an extension of who [people of color] are and where they’re from,” Melton says. By telling them to replace parts of their cuisine with, say, kale, “you’re indirectly saying, ‘There’s something wrong with your culture,’” and that white American eating patterns are better. (Ironically, she points out, many cultures have adhered to plant-based diets long before they became “trendy.”) / Shutterstock

Ideally, a nutrition professional would find a healthy version of an eating pattern from the patient’s own culture — “but that’s difficult to do if we don’t have professionals from that culture,” Melton says.

Belleny, who lives in Boston, has experienced the lack of diversity in nutrition and dietetics firsthand at the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE), AND’s annual gathering of food and nutrition professionals, where she has typically encountered a sea of white women. One of them, Belleny says, even turned to her at the 2014 event and commented on the lack of diversity. “There’s not that many of you here,” she said, cementing the discomfort Belleny couldn’t put her finger on until that moment.

“This is a systemic issue,” Belleny says. “There’s an underlying, even bigger issue with recruiting and retaining students.” Both she and Melton note that undergraduate students of color face numerous barriers to entering nutrition and dietetics professions. For instance, they may not realize these professions even exist because they don’t know any dietitians (again, reflecting the lack of diversity in the field).

They also may not be able to find mentorship, making it harder for them to navigate the often strict, confusing course requirements to earn an RDN or nutrition and dietetic technician, registered (NDTR) credential. Earning the RDN credential also requires an unpaid internship that typically lasts six months to a year, a financial burden that many Black and Brown students simply can’t afford. And even once they enter the field, “it can feel isolating,” Belleny says. “I had that feeling of not belonging for something I earned.” She didn’t want other dietetics students of color to feel the same way she did.

Melton had a similar epiphany at the 2017 FNCE. Frustrated with being one of the few people of color in attendance year after year, she told Jessica Jones and Wendy Lopez, co-founders of the multimedia platform Food Heaven Made Easy (and now members of Diversify Dietetics’ advisory council), that she’d had enough. Melton wanted to disrupt the system that was preventing her community from living their healthiest lives.

Melton aimed to develop a nonprofit that would cater to students and early-career professionals of color in nutrition and dietetics. Jones and Lopez later connected her with another Black RDN who had told them about a similar idea. That RDN, of course, was Belleny. So Melton and Belleny launched Diversify Dietetics in 2018.

Nadine Greeff / Stocksy

The women primarily aimed to reach young people where they’re at: Instagram. The organization maintains an active account with more than 4,500 followers and growing. Volunteers field DMs about selecting undergrad classes and other career-related topics. Students and early-career professionals can also tune in to Feed Me the Facts, a podcast about everything from racial microaggressions to starting their own business. Diversify Dietetics also spotlights dietetics professionals of color on its blog, offers a mentorship program, and hosts meetups around the country. It offers all its resources at low or no cost.

Marina Chaparro, a Mexican American registered dietitian in Miami, shares Melton and Belleny’s philosophy of making healthy eating accessible to everyone. (In fact, she also serves on Diversify Dietetics’ advisory council.) While working at a children’s hospital in Miami, she noticed that although many of the manuals and other materials on pediatric nutrition had been translated into Spanish, they lacked cultural context. For instance, they recommended sweet potatoes when many Latinx families are more likely to eat yucca or lentils. Those that did recommend Latinx foods chose examples from only one Latinx group. “There are nuances in how babies are raised within the realm of the Hispanic culture,” she says.

The dearth of culturally aware resources on kids’ nutrition spurred Chaparro to start Nutrichicos, which offers bilingual, personalized nutrition programs, including consultations and diabetes management. (Chaparro herself has type 1 diabetes.) Her ability to speak Spanish and English also allows her to communicate with families across generations; a parent and their child may prefer speaking to her in English, for instance, but they might have also brought a grandparent, who would rather converse in Spanish. Chaparro’s heritage also makes her more relatable, which urges families to be more forthright with her about their practices and needs.

This is crucial because families generally won’t adhere to dietary plans unless they still allow room for what they know, love, and find comforting. Some white dietitians to label Latinx staple foods as off-limits. For instance, they may caution people with diabetes against eating bananas and rice, but in certain cases, these foods don’t really affect blood sugar, Chaparro says. Oftentimes, a dietician might restrict pork, too. But if you’re Latinx, you might instead want to be coached on how to prepare pork in a healthier way or offset it with other foods to create more balance in your diet. “That way, they’re still able to enjoy the staple dish their grandma used to make,” she says.

Families generally won’t adhere to dietary plans unless they still allow room for what they know, love, and find comforting.

Ultimately, the goal is to help people eat healthy, and people eat what makes them feel happy and comfortable — which is usually what reminds them of home, Melton says, whatever that looks like for them. Plus, some research suggests that patients respond better to health professionals of the same racial background, which means it’s reasonable to predict that they’re more likely to listen to dietitians who look like them, too. They “don’t care about the letters around the name,” Melton says. Instead, they look for whether the dietitian understands where they’re coming from. “They can feel the authenticity.”

Broadening our notion of what foods count as “healthy” beyond a narrow Eurocentric lens — that is, beyond what you might see in Whole Foods aisles or what comes up under #cleaneating on Instagram — is more than just “the nice thing to do”; it’s the just thing to do. Rather than leaving people of color feeling defeated, it can make us feel empowered and seen.