Latina Dietitian Zariel Grullón Talks Non-diets & Embracing Our Cultural Foods

Zariel Grullón is a Dominican dietitian who is dedicated to helping people nurture a healthy relationship with their bodies and cultural foods

Zariel Grullón

Photo courtesy of Zariel Grullón

Latinas often face a lot criticism when it comes to how our bodies look, how much or how little we eat, and how much we weigh, especially at holiday gatherings. This behavior has been accepted in the Latinx community throughout generations, creating lasting trauma and a toxic diet culture. In fact, studies have shown that Latinas are at higher risk of developing eating disorders than non-Latinxs, including bulimia. Latina teens specifically are more likely than white teens to try losing weight through diets and binge eating. A lot of these problems stem from a negative relationship many of us have with our cultural foods, which are often blamed for high rates of obesity and diabetes in our community. That’s why Latina dietitians like Dominican American Zariel Grullón are so important because they have a unique understanding of our community’s needs and can help us make better choices for our bodies without sacrificing our cultural foods—or embarking on potentially harmful diets. As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Certified Dietitian-Nutritionist (CDN), Grullón utilizes a non-diet approach to her work, instead focusing on preventative care, embracing culture and traditions, and meeting clients where they’re at to help them develop a healthy relationship with the food they eat.

“Non-diet means going back to basics, understanding your body what your body is communicating to you, and using that as your guiding point in life when it comes to nutrition, health, and wellness,” she tells HipLatina. “Diet culture does a great job of separating us from our bodies. In my work as a non-diet dietitian, it’s about getting you to listen to your body again and whatever little cues are happening, and establishing the trust that was there when we were babies before all these other things influenced it to be separate. It’s about reclaiming who you are for yourself.”

Grullón’s journey toward becoming a dietitian began very young, though she didn’t realize it at the time. As a kid, her family made it very clear that for her future career, she had her choice of becoming a doctor, a dentist, or a lawyer. In true “American Dream” form, it was to be a profession that earned both respect and a stable income. But what was going on in her home was something she couldn’t just ignore. She saw how preventative care could’ve helped many of her family members “be present today” had they received the care and attention from doctors that they needed or healthcare that was affordable. She also saw her mother relying on nutrition strategies to help manage her own health conditions, using food as a path toward healing. She even saw herself internalizing a lot of fatphobia, guilt, and shame around her body and the foods that she loved.

But even then, becoming a dietitian wasn’t something that was on her radar. It wasn’t something she thought she could be and it’s not surprising considering the field of nutrition is overwhelmingly white. As of 2022, Latinxs make up a mere 11 percent of all registered dietitians in the U.S., despite Latinxs making up 20 percent of the population. Not seeing herself in this space meant it was never on her radar, especially as a first-gen student, she wanted to follow the road map her parents had set out for her and find the stability they had been working towards their entire lives.

For a long time, she had every intention of becoming a dentist. She got into college, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, applied for dental school, and even did a dental apprenticeship. During the apprenticeship, however, she realized that she didn’t want to do this kind of work forever, that her heart wasn’t as in it as she’d hoped. While her family was supportive, it was obvious that she had to make a decision to pursue something else. She began looking back at pivotal moments in her life, realizing how much food had played a positive role in her upbringing and yet how much shame and guilt she’d grown up with surrounding her body image and even more so, how many people in her community were still dealing with the same thing. It was at that moment that she realized she wanted to be a dietitian and work with her community to re-establish trust, joy, and empowerment when it comes to eating food.

With her family’s support she went on to earn a degree in science and nutrition without taking too many additional classes since she had a degree in biology. By 2020, after completing an internship and passing a board exam, she was able to become a certified dietitian. She does note, however, that she faced substantially fewer barriers than today’s Latinas hoping to become dietitians. While it used to be enough to get a bachelor’s, she says that trainees now require a master’s to be eligible to continue with a dietitian program, which may cause serious consequences for the field of nutrition and how the Latinx community is represented, which is already minimal.

“If we’re looking statistically at people that can’t afford to go to grad school, that number is small. When we’re looking at women of color and Latinas, that’s an even smaller population,” she says. “So when we’re thinking about nutrition education and how information is being communicated, our cultures are put off to the side and our cultures and foods are going to be taught by people that don’t have the lived experience of what it means to be Latina or any other people around the world.”

In many ways, this educational model has impacted folks in real life, leading many, especially in the Latinx community, to believe that their cultural foods aren’t healthy. In order to break apart those misconceptions, she has worked even harder to infuse culture into every aspect of her work, centering what it was like for her to grow up in a Dominican household, and make cultural food specifically part of “everything that I do.” Not only does she have two plátanos tattooed on her body, but she also frequently hosts workshops about Dominican culinary history where attendees can learn and discuss the history of food before cooking a few recipes together as an act of power and reclamation.

“Our cultural foods have fed generations of families for so long, so how could they do us dirty now? How it could be healthy to deny your culture? It doesn’t make sense,” she explains. “Pointing out the ways that our foods are nutritious with the necessary fiber, vegetables, minerals, and vitamins and being able to help folks feel empowered to reclaim those foods is a driving force of mine, especially with the ways our bodies are treated as a talking point in our families. And the thing is, we show love through food. Food is an integral part of the way families spend time together and a source of connection. But then diet culture gets in there and we start policing people’s bodies and food choices. I try to connect those dots to help clients connect back to their bodies and what they like.”

She finds that this is especially true around the holiday season when people feel freer than usual to talk about other people’s bodies and how much or how little they put on their plates. So part of her work in one-on-one meeting with clients is to help them learn the tools and strategies they need to navigate those spaces, choose when and how to respond, and actually enjoy themselves without feelings of hurt and shame.

“Something that I remind folks is that for the most part, all of this is coming from love, it’s just misguided love fueled with that fatphobia that’s been instilled in us,” she says. “And if you have the space to have conversations with your families on how to create boundaries and reframe these things, it can lead to a healthier relationship with everybody.”

Over the years that she’s been working with clients, Grullón has found that Western centrism, colonialism, and the history of colonization have also played a big role in the ways we talk about and treat food. Many clients come to her believing that the standard American diet is the healthiest way to go, with three food groups represented on the plate or at least a side salad. While it’s a great visual tool, she’s a firm believer that there’s no one “right” way to have a balanced meal and that you don’t have to sacrifice cultural foods in order to get there either.

“If we look back at the history of the Caribbean, the way we ate indigenously was a plant-based diet of beans, squashes, fruits, nuts, and seeds because there weren’t any big domesticated animals,” she says. “It wasn’t until Christopher Columbus came and introduced domesticated animals and grains that didn’t normally grow like sugar, that our diets started changing to this new way of eating that has stuck. And the language that colonizers used then to deem food good or bad has stayed throughout time. Colonialism has negatively influenced our food.”

Another important aspect that she takes into consideration when it comes to her work is the social and economic inequities many of her clients may face. Whether they live in a food desert or are on food stamps or live in an area where store-bought food is extremely expensive, especially produce, folks come to her sessions with all kinds of unique challenges and circumstances that prevent them from getting ingredients for stereotypically “healthy” recipes, which only adds to the feelings of shame. In those moments, she employs creative problem-solving skills in order to reassure clients that they are not alone and that they will get the help they need and deserve no matter what.

“It’s really important for any dietitian to meet their clients where they’re at, and that includes their accessibility to food,” she explains. “For many reasons, we get the messaging that fresh is best. Part of my work with some clients is addressing that there are other ways to get your nutrients outside of fresh foods and to be realistic about what you can afford. It’s important as a dietitian to help folks find ways to make all of their meals as nutritious as possible using whatever is available to them using the tools in their kitchen. Not everyone has a stove, not everyone has a fridge, those are not realities for everyone. So how can you make meals relatable and accessible? Microwaveable food that can be turned into a balanced meal totally counts. Canned food with a longer shelf life that you can whip up into a balanced meal totally counts. Taking that stigma away is a lot of my work.”

More than anything, though, the most rewarding part of her work is seeing her clients make little changes that have really big impacts on their lives, like being able to incorporate vegetables in ways they hadn’t thought about before, avoiding excessive snacking, eating a good amount of fiber, and, of course, listening to their bodies and what they need. At the end of the day, her goal is to ensure that they don’t have to worry about food so much anymore and that they feel real, genuine joy when they eat. Especially as someone who’s experienced the negative side of dieting and nutrition herself, she wants to make sure that she’s returning strength and joy back into the world, so that people might be more encouraged to tackle their individual challenges head-on, and receiving that positivity back onto herself. She notes:

“A lot of the work that I do is healing for myself as for someone that’s grown up in a bigger body her whole life. I had to navigate the health and wellness space and the big misunderstandings we have around health as it relates to weight. I didn’t have the vocabulary to stand up for myself as family and friends made comments about my body and now I’m advocating for my clients and the people that I work with in the communities that I serve to let them know that they deserve to be treated right regardless of their size. That all drives me to trust my gut, my intuition, and my body so that I can continue being of service to clients. I want them to be able to trust and nourish themselves in a way that’s respectful of their culture and lived experiences, and that’s authentic to them.”

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