The following is an interview conducted by WITS Chef and Resident Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Ricardo Diaz. Ricardo interviewed Maya Feller, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist,a nationally recognized nutrition expert who recently joined the Wellness in the Schools Board of Directors.
Ricardo: Hi Maya, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and answer a few questions. I guess we can just jump right into it with the big question of what led you to want to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist? Was it always your end goal?
Maya: Hi Ricardo! Actually, not at all. I started out studying experimental theater and philosophy as an undergraduate. So it wasn’t what I originally set out to do. The path to becoming an RDN actually started when I was training for the Boston Marathon. I was spending so many hours running and I began to think more about the food that I was eating. What’s happening with the food I eat? Where is it going? How is it metabolized? How is my food turning into fuel? All of these questions fascinated me, and still do. After researching those questions I learned about registered dietitians and knew that it was something that I wanted to study. I come from a family of academics, so I knew immediately I wanted to go for the terminal degree, so that is what I did and I became a dietitian!
Ricardo: Thank you so much for sharing that story with me Maya. It’s also interesting to hear that we both didn’t necessarily look at nutrition and dietetics as a primary goal from the start. Becoming an RDN was something I ended up stumbling into myself. I initially wanted to go pre-med. After taking some requisite classes in nutrition I started using what I was learning in that class in my personal life, and once I saw how these practices were influencing my own health then I thought, “well, maybe I should give this a try instead.”
Maya: Oh, that’s amazing. So do you use any of your knowledge from pre-med classes years ago as you are working with the students now?
Ricardo: Yes I do, but I take what I learned and I simplify it so that students can more easily use that information to make changes within their own life… So we know how you decided on becoming an RDN, but what led you to working in private practice and academia?
Maya: Before private practice and academia I actually started working with my community. Right after becoming an RDN I started working with a community organization where I worked with homeless or unstably housed patients with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. After that, I started working with the New York City Department of Health where I was a part of a program that would go around the 5 boroughs and teach classes on nutrition and body care. That eventually led to me doing 12 week nutrition workshops in New York City housing projects. It was around that time that I decided to start my own private practice. At first, my work really centered around maternal and family nutrition, but over time it has become more general, but I still do a lot of family nutrition work and a lot of it deals with non communicable conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, etc. All of my work is from a very patient-centered, anti-biased lens. I am really there to take the science that I do know and work with a lens of cultural humility so that I can serve the patients efficiently. I don’t know anything about a person’s lived experience, that’s their unique experience, what I do know is the nutrition science, which means I have to walk in with my eyes open and my ears open and honor what they’re telling me so that I can really serve them in the best possible way.
When I was running the 12 week nutrition workshops that is when I started teaching at NYU. I started teaching life cycle nutrition there in 2012 and I am still teaching it. So that’s how I ended up in private practice and academia!
Ricardo: I really like the point you bring up on cultural humility. I feel like that is something I had to gradually learn to appreciate a lot more, especially when working with different cultures all over New York City. So how did you end up working with the populations that you work with now?
Maya: I think that as a black woman dietitian many of my patients have sought me out because I am not the majority. So I have a large group of patients that were looking for someone who is representative of them. I also have a large group of patients that identify as LGBTQ+ because my work is through an anti-biased approach. Patients want someone who will listen to them, and because I work with an anti-racist, anti-biased lens that takes cultural humility into account I am better able to serve my patients. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “thank you for listening.” That’s not generally a part of how we are trained as RDNs. We engage in motivational interviewing, which may work for some but might not work for others, and we are taught that we are supposed to educate, which is true, but we also need to educate ourselves by listening to and learning from our patients. I am always willing to say “I can learn from you,” and I think that’s why a lot of my patients come to me.
Ricardo: The listening is so crucial. I find that especially with my work with the students, you have to listen closely to them so that you can meet them where they are at, but as you say, people don’t focus enough on the listening aspect of our work. We also never really got guidance on working with the LGBTQ+ community as you mentioned –
Maya: Not at all. We are told that so many of those conversations that we have with patients from the LGBTQ+ fall under “social issues,” and are not classified as dietetics work, when in fact, people’s identities are deeply entwined with how they interact with food. I think that as we start to teach a new generation of dietitians we need to begin to build all of this into the fabric of dietetics so that students are better equipped to work with diverse populations.
Ricardo: Absolutely. One thing that comes to mind is looking at different cultures and how different cultures eat healthily. Looking back, I never really knew how to address how individuals from different cultures could eat healthy while consuming traditional cultural foods. As a preceptor, professor, and a mentor, how do you challenge and broaden the perspective with regard to how your students and future RDNs could better serve these diverse populations while keeping cultural traditions intact?
Maya: That’s an incredible question. The academy loves to say that “there is no one size that fits all.” And they’re right. There is no one size that fits all. When new patients come in we should be asking them, “what is it that you are engaged in eating, what are some of your favorite foods?” Let’s start by asking and listening, before we start to prescribe. We should take into account what is accessible in their communities.
Ricardo: That is such a good point. Chef Marion and I have to factor this into our pantry work in the Bronx. We have to take into account what kind of food and ingredients that people like to eat, along with what they have access to, and try to help them from there while being fully aware of their cultural traditions. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me Maya. It was so great to hear about your journey to becoming an RDN and how our paths had a few similarities.
Maya: Thank you so much for having me! Always happy to support Wellness in the Schools.