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A Black Dietitian Wants To Close The Nutrition Gap

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over the course of this coronavirus pandemic, you might have heard stories describing how different groups are reacting to the situation, to information about the virus and about how to fight it. And politics probably plays a role in that, but so might another factor - something called culturally competent care. That means people are more likely to trust the advice they get from people who understand their lives.

That's one reason an article in this month's Bon Appetit magazine caught our attention. The piece points out a study from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that says people of color make up less than 13% of registered dietitians in the United States. It's titled, There's a Nutrition Divide In This Country. So I Became a Dietitian. Registered dietitian Vanessa Rissetto was interviewed for that article, and she is with us now to tell us more about why this all matters. Vanessa Rissetto, thanks so much for joining us.

VANESSA RISSETTO: Thanks for having me. I'm so excited to talk with you.

MARTIN: So how - you - the title of the piece gives it away, but part of the reason you became a registered dietitian is because you didn't see other people in the field who look like you, come from your background. Could you just tell us a little bit more about your story, like why you got into this field?

RISSETTO: Sure. I always was interested in science and medicine. And, you know, I went to college. I studied history. And, you know, obviously, in college, a lot of people gain weight, so I gained weight. And I had never had a problem with weight before. I lost a lot of weight on my own, but then I just thought to myself, I should just go to a dietician to understand more.

So I went to a dietitian, who happens to be white, and she just explained everything to me in a very, you know, real, scientific way - like, you know, made it "digestible," quote-unquote, for me to understand. And it was great. And I had success. And I thought, wow, that's so interesting.

And then I thought, I wonder if there are other dietitians that aren't white women, right? Like, where are they? And it was really hard to find. And then it just led me to think, well, I'm really interested in medicine, science. I'm interested in nutrition. So let me go back to school to become a registered dietitian. And in my classes, you know, it was that makeup, right? It was all white women who were studying dietetics for whatever reason. And I thought that that was really significant because people need to see more people that look like them so that they can feel heard and, you know, somebody relates to them and understands. And not that my counterparts aren't culturally competent. I don't want to say that they aren't because many, many, many of them are. But many of them are, you know, in their own little bubble. And they have their own little private practice, and they target a specific clientele. So it really makes nutrition seem something for the elite and not for everybody.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that you point out in your piece is something that I think people may have become aware of, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic and maybe other people before that, is that one of the reasons that people of color, African Americans and Latinos and also Native Americans, have been having, you know, adverse outcomes is in part that they had underlying conditions like obesity, like heart disease that make you more vulnerable to the - to this particular condition. You also point out in your piece that Black households are two and a half times as likely to be food insecure as white households, and they're one and a half times less likely to have health insurance. So those are all factors that lead people to being more vulnerable to the kind of health crisis that the country is experiencing now. But why would it make a difference to have a person who understood those issues kind of helping to be part of the treatment system for folks?

RISSETTO: Yeah. Well, so here's the thing, right? Whenever we talk about African Americans or Latinos or Native Americans are more prone to diabetes, or they have higher mortality with regards to breast cancer - so it makes it sound by, like, just the fact that you are African American or you are Hispanic or you are Native American, those are the reasons. But we forget - and what you just said, right? - it's really, like, lack of access, lack of people understanding you, lack of people caring, right? So then you don't want to seek out that help because you don't think that anybody is going to listen to you.

So it's really important to - you know, I'm Haitian - right? - so there's always rice and beans at my house, right? My mother is - you know, she cooks a lasagna, and there's also rice and beans. So if somebody came to me, and they were Haitian, and they were, like, I eat rice and beans every single day, I'm like, OK. Well, let me show you how to eat the rice and beans. Their serving size is a half-cup, third-cup, quarter-cup, depending - instead of, rice and beans isn't good, and that's not what you should be eating.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I mean, talk a little bit more about the reaction that you got to your piece. I take it that some people were happy to hear about this information, but I take it that some of it was disheartening. Tell me more about that.

RISSETTO: Yeah. You know, if you go on the Bon Appetit Instagram, you see that there's a static post with my face, and there's a lot of racist comments. You know, like, why are you talking about race? Only talk about food. You have a political agenda. I mean, I had people just straight calling me a racist. And, you know, Michel, at the end of the day, I don't really care. I'm still the first dietitian that Bon Appetit has ever put in their magazine. But it just, like, scares me and makes me feel sad that everybody felt triggered by the statistics that I gave. And instead of doing some, like, introspection and thinking, they just decided to come at me. And that's a shame. But I am proud of the work that I do. I'm proud of that piece, and I'm glad that people are hearing about it. And I hope that we are able to move more towards change.

MARTIN: That is Vanessa Rissetto. She is a registered dietitian, the founder of Culina Health. You can read her piece in this month's Bon Appetit magazine. It's titled Fighting the Nutrition Divide. Vanessa Rissetto, thanks so much for joining us.

RISSETTO: Thank you so much. It was so nice talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUFJAN STEVENS SONG, "SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.