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Second to my love of travel is my love of food.

When I’m able to immerse myself in another culture by indulging in their traditional foods, I feel connected to them.

Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago (“Trinbago”), my journey with food has been diverse by default. With English, French, and Spanish colonial influences, as well as food practices from Africa, East India, China, and now Venezuela, Trinbago’s food is a true melting pot.

However, most of my formal nutrition education focused on the food pyramid and now the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) MyPlate guide — concepts that don’t align with many traditional meals.

While MyPlate demonstrates that a balanced plate should be half non-starchy vegetables, one-quarter protein, and one-quarter grains, traditional one-pot dishes blend these food groups into a meal that can’t be distinctively portioned on a plate.

For example, it’s impractical to serve pelau — a Caribbean one-pot dish made with caramelized chicken, parboiled rice, pigeon peas, and an array of vegetables and seasonings — within the MyPlate template.

As a dietitian and food lover, I thus became confused and frustrated when I tried to create culturally competent healthy meals.

I began to wonder, “Are these traditional meals truly healthy if they don’t fit the MyPlate mold, or does the accepted Western understanding of healthy, balanced meals lack cultural competence?”

It wasn’t until recent years that I was able to develop a concept of healthy eating that embraces the nuances of cultural foods and inclusivity.

I’ll take you with me on parts of that journey and show you what I learned.

Dietitian Amber Charles with her sonShare on Pinterest
Courtesy of Amber Charles

Bridging the gap between nutritional science and traditional cuisine

Although I didn’t know what to call it then, my interest in nutrition began as early as age 7 after my mother’s stroke, as I was motivated to use food as medicine to improve her quality of life.

Yet, it wasn’t until my role as a dietetic technician that I discovered my passion for teaching individuals the role that nutrition plays in the management of their medical conditions.

In Trinidad and Tobago, these client education sessions focused on healthier ways to enjoy cultural foods, such as choosing the high fiber dhalpuri roti — a traditional flatbread — over its high fat counterpart, paratha roti.

When I interned in the United States, I had observed both dietitians and their clients struggle to discuss appropriate food substitutes that respected the client’s food culture. This disconnect could hamper the client’s compliance with their nutrition plan and overall success.

Determined to bridge this gap, I work to diversify nutrition education so that people can achieve improved health outcomes without having to abandon their food cultures.

My daily approach to nutrition — both struggles and triumphs

I approach nutrition in my daily life with flexibility.

At a minimum, most of my meals are balanced and include a grain, a protein, and vegetables or fruit. I include local or regional foods — and I enjoy treats!

Fortunately, there are numerous healthy, traditional meals that make meal planning simple, such as sautéed spinach with taro root and stewed fish.

With respect to one-pot dishes, such as oil down — a scrumptious dish made with breadfruit, spinach, carrots, and salted meat like pig tails, my focus changes to portion control, adding high fiber side dishes, and mindful eating techniques like paying attention to my fullness cues.

My weekly cooking schedule

As someone with thyroid nodules, I often experience fluctuations in my energy levels, which may negatively affect my ability to prepare foods.

Thus, I cook 2–3 times per week, preparing enough for 1–2 days at a time. On Fridays I order out, on Saturdays I typically cook bean soup, and on Mondays I eat leftovers from Sunday’s lunch.

This is where incorporating minimally processed foods is key to making meal preparation easier and more convenient.

I sometimes purchase pre-chopped vegetables at the grocery store, although I prefer to shop at the farmer’s market for fresh produce. Freezing batches of seasoned meat, fish, and chopped veggies saves time when preparing meals, as does including low sodium canned goods like tuna.

To further support my thyroid health, I have reduced my intake of highly processed convenience foods and redirected my attention to whole foods.

This meant making my baked goods from scratch at home with unbleached, whole wheat flour during most of 2020 and opting not to purchase frozen waffles and pancakes.

It also meant increasing prebiotic and probiotic foods like yogurt and having small amounts of fiber at any given time to support digestion, which may be impaired by thyroid disorders.

What are common misconceptions about dietitians?

One stereotype about dietitians is that we all eat the same way.

For example, most people don’t expect a dietitian to eat doubles — a fried, curried, chickpea finger food from Trinidad and Tobago — and might regard anyone who does so as setting a poor example or eating “unhealthy” foods.

However, doubles are an all-time favorite of mine. I enjoy every bite!

If I had a dollar for every stereotype about dietitians, I’d be set for life. Let’s dispel just a few:

  • Dietitians are not the food police. In fact, many dietitians are flexible with their own eating habits and may encourage you to be the same. We’re not here to shout you down for having a second helping.
  • Dietitians also enjoy desserts. Whether it’s an original recipe or a low fat variant, desserts are on a dietitian’s menu, too. (“Can I have another slice of cake, please?”)
  • Dietitians add value to your health beyond weight loss. Dietitians are often consulted for weight loss but can also teach you how to utilize nutrition to support your medical condition or overall health goals — with or without focusing on your weight.

Current trends in dietetics

Of course, dietitians aren’t all the same. We offer a plethora of perspectives and approaches to nutritional therapy. While some swear by calorie counting, others take an anti-diet route and teach their clientele about food freedom and intuitive eating.

There’s currently a shift in the dietetics world toward the Health at Every Size (HAES) approach, which is promoted by the Association for Size Diversity and Health.

HAES recognizes that health is multifaceted and that, regardless of your body weight, you deserve to receive medically and nutritionally appropriate expertise tailored to your needs.

If you’re interested in seeing a dietitian or nutritionist, it’s advisable to thoroughly research the experts in your area to determine whether you’re a good match.

My favorite foods and go-to meals, snacks, and recipes

During my time pursuing a Master’s degree in the United States, I cured homesickness with traditional meals.

Callaloo — puréed spinach, okra, pumpkin, and green seasonings — along with oven-barbecue-baked chicken and macaroni pie is my go-to comfort meal.

If I need a quick meal for dinner or breakfast, my routine involves whole grain bread, scrambled eggs or sausages, sautéed vegetables like broccoli or bok choy, and/or fruit.

Other meals I enjoy are the previously mentioned pelau, oil down, and roti with curried chicken.

While I love fruit as a snack, I also munch on trail mix, dark or milk chocolate, sliced apple with peanut butter, and yogurt.

I occasionally purchase local treats like tamarind ball (a sweet and spicy treat made from tamarind fruit), kurma (a crunchy flour-based snack with ginger), and benne ball (made with sesame seeds and molasses).

Furthermore, I make fresh juices and smoothies at home to enjoy as morning drinks.

My go-to juice

Here’s my basic fresh juice recipe (serves one):

  • 1 small gala apple
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 3 stalks of celery
  • 1 small beetroot
  • 1/4 inch (0.5 cm) of ginger
  • 1 medium cucumber

Juice, pour, and enjoy.

Encouraging healthy eating with a toddler

My 3-year-old son loves to cook (any excuse to play with water, really) and — bonus! — having a discussion with him about food is quite easy.

He joins us in the kitchen and enjoys chopping foods, adding items to the juicer, stirring the pot, and dishing out the food. He’s quite savvy when cracking eggs, too — no shells!

Using a divided plate with pictures of food groups (much like this one) was his first introduction to food portions and the concept of a balanced plate.

Having him choose the fruit, vegetable, grain, and protein he wanted gave him autonomy while keeping him involved in his meal.

Other creative approaches we’ve taken include creating fruit and vegetable stamps for our at-home arts and crafts sessions, as well as introducing our toddler to the variety of in-season fruits and vegetables in Trinidad and Tobago.

His snacks include yogurt, fresh fruit, biscuits, chips, chocolate, and occasionally juice.

The realistic side of healthy eating

Dietitians are human, too.

Yet, the misconceptions about my profession, as well as healthy eating, lead to scrutiny by family members if I snack on anything other than fruits or vegetables, or if my weight increases a bit.

This is hilarious — but also indicative of the mountain of distress caused by diet culture that dietitians and nutritionists must address.

In reality, I sometimes enjoy eating just for pleasure and have learned to detach my morality and self-worth from foods. Therefore, I eat without guilt.

This doesn’t mean that I overeat empty-calorie foods but rather that I have found my sweet spot whereby I enjoy what I eat while attaining my health goals — and doing so without food obsession.

But let me be clear — healthy eating doesn’t have a special look. It isn’t a black-and-white concept, especially when you consider cultural foods.

Although the traditional one-pot dishes of Trinidad and Tobago aren’t reflected in the USDA’s MyPlate or conventional, Western notions of balanced meals, they’re nutrient-dense, scrumptious, and a great fit for a healthy diet.

All in all, healthy eating should be based on your own tastes and dietary preferences.

Courtesy of Amber Charles

Amber Charles is a Public Health Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian (RD) based in Trinidad and Tobago. She holds a Master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is passionate about diversifying nutrition education and improving access to nutrition expertise among the Caribbean diaspora.

With a “food is medicine” approach, Amber aspires to become a functional and integrative dietitian and has dedicated space to this pursuit on her blog, The Cultural Dietitian.