As of 2020, 80% of dieticians identify as white, 6% as Hispanic or Latino, 3% as Black, and 5% Asian (American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics). This lack of diversity among dieticians has led to the dominance of Eurocentric messaging regarding certain foods and diets, as well as overall health. Nutrition guidelines often do not account for the unique needs of communities of color. This is especially problematic given that racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by certain health conditions, including type II diabetes and obesity (CDC, 2022; Peterson et al., 2019). As dietician services can help prevent or regulate these conditions, it is crucial that nutrition recommendations are more mindful of cultural differences to reduce risk among minoritized communities.
In the historically white field of dietetics, Westernized diets are often recommended as “healthy” regardless of a client’s background. In particular, the Mediterranean Diet (MedDiet), which is praised for its association with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, is considered the gold standard amongst dieticians and scientific organizations. However, most evaluations of the MedDiet were conducted on predominantly white populations. More research is necessary to assess its effects on other racial and ethnic populations (Mattei & Sotos-Prieto, 2018). Only by making the structural changes necessary to be more inclusive of underrepresented communities, such as by diversifying recruitment in academic research and ensuring accessibility to the education and resources necessary to become a dietician, can mainstream nutritional recommendations begin to reflect a breadth of diversity truly.
Dieticians and health professionals may invite culture into conversations about diet management through cultural competence and training regarding cultural sensitivity. Tamara Melton, MS, RDN, defines cultural competence as the “ongoing effort to understand a patient’s culture and how it influences their values and beliefs related to health.” Melton exemplifies cultural competence in her work as the co-founder of Diversify Dietetics, a nonprofit that seeks to increase ethnic and racial diversity in nutrition and dietetics. Similarly, Nazima Qureshi, RD, defines a culturally sensitive approach to nutrition as one that “includes the client’s food preferences, traditions, and current cultural context.” This approach is crucial because when culturally familiar dishes are not considered “healthy,” minoritized individuals might falsely believe their traditional foods are hindering their well-being. One study conducted with a population of Mexican American women found that participants overwhelmingly perceived American diets to be healthier than their traditional Mexican foods. This perception caused those who wanted to pursue healthy eating lifestyles to reject Mexican food, creating tension between their cultural identity and eating habits (Ramírez et al., 2017).
Though the USDA has taken initial steps to include recommendations for balanced meals that align with various cultures in their updated MyPlate feature, more work is needed to ensure that this database is expanded and dieticians and health professionals in practice support that diversity. Incorporating one’s experiences into personal nutritional recommendations emphasizes that food can be both healthy and culturally inclusive, a concept that has been disregarded for far too long.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2023). Academy/Commission on Dietetic Registration Demographics. https://www.cdrnet.org/academy-commission-on-dietetic-registration-demographics
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Advancing Health Equity. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/health-equity/index.html
Food Insight. (2021). Diversifying MyPlate Series: Q&A on Culturally Sensitive Approaches in Nutrition. https://foodinsight.org/diversifying-myplate-series-qanda/
Melton, Tamara. (2021). Dietician Tamara Melton Explains Why Diversity in Nutrition is so Important. https://www.health.com/nutrition/nutrition-cultural-diversity
Petersen, R., Pan, L., & Blanck, H. M. (2019). Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Adult Obesity in the United States: CDC’s Tracking to Inform State and Local Action. Preventing chronic disease, 16, E46. https://doi.org/10.5888/pcd16.180579
Ramírez, A. S., Golash-Boza, T., Unger, J. B., & Baezconde-Garbanati, L. (2018). Questioning the Dietary Acculturation Paradox: A Mixed-Methods Study of the Relationship between Food and Ethnic Identity in a Group of Mexican-American Women. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 118(3), 431–439. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2017.10.008
U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans-2020-2025.pdf
U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.myplate.gov/.
By Abby Mueller
Abby Mueller is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, and this is her second year in the Living F.R.E.E. Lab.