With the holidays in full swing, the most comforting advice I’ve been receiving has come from a nutritionist’s posts on her Instagram feed.
As I saw the constant reassurance that I don’t need to sacrifice favorite dishes like arroz blanco, tres leches, or mofongo this holiday season, I was stunned. I had never heard this kind of advice from a licensed professional before.
Realizing that diet culture had conditioned me to think that sticking to cauliflower and rice cakes were the key to optimal health, I found myself questioning so many of the preconceived notions I had around health and my heritage.
Dalina Soto has cultivated an online community of women seeking to improve their health and relationship with body confidence and food. As a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Nutrition, Dalina has been able to strike a balance between health and cultural preservation within a field that has designed its methods with white bodies and environments in mind. A Dominican-American herself, she’s described mainstream diet culture as unsustainable and harmful to Latinx communities.
She’s a self-proclaimed anti-diet dietitian and actively works to break down the stereotype around health and nutrition as synonymous with thinness. By advocating for body positivity and all the variations that come from that, she’s created a platform that resonates with the Latinx community.
Through her social media and her coaching program, she reflects the philosophies that drive her practice in ways that honor her clients’ (also referred to as “chulas”) cultures, lifestyles, and eating habits.
We got to talk to Dalina about her journey as a Latina nutritionist, the different insights that have informed her practice, and what she recommends to current and potential chulas during this time.
What inspired you to start a career as a nutritionist?
I actually started off pre-med and ended up taking a Nutrition 101 class that made me fall in love with the preventative care side of nutrition. I thought, why not help people before they get sick! But I didn’t have real-world experience then and had no clue that health is so much more than what we eat.
What is your approach to nutrition, and how does your background as a Latina influence it?
I work from an intuitive-eating and health-at-every-size lens. I believe that all foods have nutritional value, and stressing about them causes more harm than any good a green smoothie can do. The goal is to have a good relationship with food so that you can practice enjoying it all. Specifically, my Latinx culture really helps when making peace with foods that the wellness world often taunts as bad, like white rice and tortillas. My goal is to help my clients understand how these foods nourish them and how they can manage any chronic disease while still keeping their culture alive.
You’re a big advocate of intuitive eating versus dieting. What is the difference, and how does the former benefit your clients?
Intuitive eating means being in tune with your body. I often joke that it’s listening to your panza. Honestly, it’s understanding your body’s needs so that you can honor your nutrition and health but also your taste buds. It’s also understanding that body diversity is real and that we can try to fight our genetics all we want, but our bodies have a weight set point and place where it feels happy and comfortable; that changes with the decades and life.
We cannot expect to be the same weight we were in high school at 30. Our bodies evolve but diets, on the other hand, sell you the idea that by restricting and changing your “lifestyle” you will magically go back to that weight. Everyone knows that as soon as the restriction stops, you gain it all and some. My goal is to stop the yo-yoing and help you find stability and, of course, body acceptance because all bodies deserve respect.
Something you’ve been vocal about is that mainstream diet and wellness culture is very exclusive and looked at through white lenses. Can you talk a bit more about this?
The nutrition guidelines are just that, guidelines, but they leave so many cultures out. Our foods differ so much from the “MyPlate” infographic we see plastered everywhere. Our foods are combined; our veggies are different. Our seasonings are different! We need to embrace that. When these guidelines are put together, they are not looking at how diverse our country truly is.
What challenges have you faced as a Latina nutritionist in a field with few BIPOC folks/perspectives?
Oftentimes, not being seen as good enough to be a Registered Dietitian (RD). It’s very hard to become a dietitian. There’s an unpaid internship that most BIPOC either take loans out for or have to work during. I worked as a waitress all my internship while doing 40 hours of supervised practice at the hospital. To be honest, even some of the older clients I have worked with will take a white lady’s word over mine “because she must be smarter” since it’s just ingrained in older generations. Thankfully, that has just been a few instances. Since starting my private practice, I can control the narrative and say what I believe while reaching more people that are looking for RDs like me.
In one of your recent posts on social media, you had mentioned people tease that you’re both a psychologist and nutritionist. How has incorporating this messaging of body positivity been beneficial to the nutritional guidance aspect of your practice?
It really helps people feel seen and heard and not just viewed as a number on a chart. It’d truly be about finding health and what it means to you without the hyper-focus on looks, which our culture is so pushy about.
What is your biggest tip for readers struggling with their health and confidence during quarantine?
Do things that make you happy. It’s a crappy time. Find a hobby that brings you joy. Stop hyper-focusing on nutrition and movement and truly find what makes you happy, even if it’s not nutrition/diet/workout related.