Think that “healthy eating” has to look like grilled chicken, brown rice, and broccoli for dinner every night? Nope. According to dietitian, author and speaker Maya Feller, letting go of the “good food, bad food” binary approach to nutrition, easing up on restrictive repetition, and celebrating diverse food cultures will serve us a lot better when nourishing our minds and bodies.
Feller is a nationally recognized nutrition expert who emphasizes the importance of providing nutrition education from an anti-biased, patient-centered, culturally sensitive approach. In her new cookbook Eating From Our Roots, 80-Plus Home Cooked Favorites from Cultures Around the World (Rodale Books), she highlights a wide variety of nutrient dense meals to inspire people to branch out and delight in the process.
It was actually her experience of wanting to better fuel her runs that led Feller, who previously studied experimental theater, to switch gears and pursue a career in nutrition. Here, she talks about her career path, approaches to improving cultural sensitivity in the wellness world, and what it means to eat from your roots.
Jess Cording: What inspired you to do the work you do today?
Maya Feller: [When I went back to school and began working in the field] I saw that nutrition is mostly women, and I was also acutely aware that the field is predominantly white. Once I began to study community nutrition, I was really interested in returning to communities that had been marginalized and working with them from like this really anti-bias perspective and figuring out how to bring some of what I’ve learned into those spaces.
Cording: As you were starting your career in this field, what were some of the problems that you observed in the nutrition world?
Feller: I learned really quickly that I had had to listen, to step back and abandon some of what I had been taught in school around what a “healthy plate” looks like. The way we’d been taught didn’t serve the masses.
When we talk about cultural fluency, we often forget that “culture” encompasses the social norms that any group agrees to follow.There are unspoken social norms as well. Within each culture there’s nuance—cultures are not monolithic.
One thing that I find challenging or problematic within nutrition spaces is that we assume that cultures are “other,” when in fact there are multiple cultures. We prioritize Anglo-American food ways with Anglo-American nutrition recommendations. As I’ve done work as a dietitian, I’ve become really aware, when moving into different spaces, that I have to be careful not to center that as the barometer for “normalcy.”
Cording: How do you think healthcare professionals and the media can improve and promote more inclusive nutrition?
Feller: What I’ve come to believe and understand based on my clinical experience is that when we talk about inclusivity, there has to be a restructuring and a reframe around what we consider to be the center or the norm and what we find valuable when we’re talking to people about nutrition, health, and wellness.
[We’ve been conditioned to view “healthy” as] someone who has thinness sitting down and eating a plate of vegetables or a bowl of salad or perhaps a smiling person happily exercising. Inclusivity really means differently abled, different body sizes, compositions, a variety of skin tones, hair textures. It involves changing how we see dominant expressions of gender, looking at family structures.
When we say inclusivity, all of that has to be taken into consideration. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and there has to be a shift in how these things show up in our textbooks and what the accrediting bodies view as meeting the criteria for appropriate study. Part of it is about the individuals who are out there doing the work, the people who are out there posting and reporting about it, but it’s also about the institutions and the systems. It goes deep.
Cording: What does it mean to eat from your roots?
Feller: There are two ways to look at the title. There’s eating from our roots, the reconnection with the Earth and the plants, and then there’s eating from our roots, which is your individual roots, where you are and where you came from. The book is both. I do focus a lot on leaning into foods that do not have an abundance of added sugar, salt and fats. The base ingredients that show up are in their whole and minimally processed form. Then there is a focus on moving through the globe, experiencing different cultures and heritage meals while understanding that there’s plenty of nuance. Some dishes may feel familiar and some dishes may be new, but my hope is that the home cook says, “This is something that I want to return to.”