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Meet the Dietitians Carving Out Space for Black People in the Nutrition Industry

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If you've ever sought out a nutritionist, you may have noticed that the faces that popped up in your Google search were overwhelmingly white. If so, this observation isn't your head: As of July 2020, there are 98,000 registered dietitians in the United States—78% of them are white, 3.9% are Asian, 3.3% are Hispanic or Latino, and 2.6% are Black or African American.

These numbers are problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they're likely to discourage minorities from seeking out a nutritionist. "We can infer from these numbers that it might be difficult for BIPOC to seek nutrition counseling from people they have a difficult time relating to," Vanessa Rissetto, an RD and co-founder of Culina Health, notes. "And while there is some note of cultural competence in our curriculum [when you're in nutrition school], it's not at the forefront."

That's why Rissetto teamed up with fellow dietitian Tamar Samuels to create Culina in the first place: The duo wanted to carve out a much-needed accessible, non-intimidating space for BIPOC in the field of nutrition. And so far, they're making waves.

Microaggressions In Nutrition

Becoming a registered dietitian requires a lot of work. But it also requires a lot of money, and a lot time working in the field without pay. "To become an RD you have to either be very wealthy or are willing to incur a large amount of debt," explains Rissetto. "We are asked to work for about 13 months with no pay, and then when we finish our training the starting salary is about $50,000 which is hard to live on in a city like New York."

These numbers alone may be enough to discourage many BIPOC from pursuing a degree in nutrition, and microaggressions in medicine—which, yes, extend to the field of nutrition—certainly don't help.

Meet the Expert

Vanessa Rissetto is a New York City-based registered dietitian and nutritionist and co-founder of Culina Health. You can follow Culina on Instagram here.

"I went to The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' annual meeting in October, which is our big conference. When I was introduced as the Dietetic Internship Director at NYU, many of my white counterparts asked, 'How did you get that job?" That is a microaggression," says Rissetto. "If I were white, would you have asked me that question? Is it hard to believe that a Black woman would be qualified for this job? I am trained exactly as they have been, and in many instances have more experience, so why would I get asked that question? If my white counterparts are asking me, their peer, who they know has all the credentials—how are they interacting with their patients who are BIPOC?"

About Those Health Stats...

You may have heard that Black women have higher rates of obesity than any other group, among other alarming health statistics. While these are important to note, Rissetto wants to drive the point home to both her peers and her patients that it's important to take blame out of this conversation.

"Some texts will state that African Americans have a propensity towards obesity without acknowledging that the reason for this is lack of access," she says. "There can be a language barrier, or maybe people just don't feel comfortable with their practitioner. We pretend they're obese because they are BIPOC, not because the system that has placed them in these constraints."

What Culina Is Doing Differently

Seeing two people who look like them is a huge step in helping BIPOC feel less intimidated in seeking out a nutritionist. But that isn't all Culina is doing: In addition to taking insurance, which not all nutritionists do, they also have a diverse group of practitioners who readily acknowledge the systemic racism in their field and are doing all they can to take this on.

"All of our practitioners are trained in cultural competence, and we refine that message regularly," says Rissetto. "We are trained in cultural humility—we don't make people feel shame for eating cultural foods, we show them how to enjoy foods they like and are accustomed to while directing them in an actionable way to achieve their nutrition goals."

Here's hoping Culina's mission and practices lead to a much-needed change in the nutrition industry, because it's certainly long overdue.

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