Nutrition

3 Ways I Make Nutrition Advice More Culturally Relevant to Muslim Women Like Myself

The author sitting in a park

When I was 14 years old, I accompanied my dad to see a registered dietitian. He wanted to learn how he could manage his diabetes by improving his dietary habits. As soon as I saw the food models in the dietitian’s office—a glass of milk, green peas, and a bowl of rice—I felt a deep fascination with the connection food has to health. I left that meeting sure that I wanted to be a registered dietitian who helped people better fuel their bodies and minds with food.

Stumbling upon my career was an unexpected bonus of the visit. But the meeting’s expected outcome—my dad changing his eating habits—wasn’t as successful. My father didn’t apply any of the recommendations the registered dietitian provided. I wasn’t surprised. In fact, I’d told the R.D. that would happen.

She’d first offered recommendations that focused on the Eurocentric foods nutrition experts often call upon when talking about eating habits, such as steamed veggies and salads. When I told her those recommendations simply weren’t practical for the way our Muslim, Indian family ate, she referred to a sheet with South Asian food recommendations. Those weren’t right either. For instance, the carbohydrate recommendations had foods such as idli (savory rice cakes) and dosa (thin, fermented flatbread), were not foods my dad regularly ate. He was more familiar with roti and white rice with meat-based curries.

Six years later, I was halfway through my nutrition undergraduate degree, learning how to provide eating guidance that resonated with clients. That earlier experience with the dietitian crystallized in my mind as an example of the common knowledge gap between nutrition and culture that exists for many registered dietitians.

This realization underscored my urge to provide nutrition recommendations that don’t compromise or ignore my clients’ cultural foods and traditions. It made me want to help women like me and families like mine have the healthy, happy lives they deserve. So, in 2015 I started my business and blog, Nutrition by Nazima.

My website’s tagline was “Helping women live healthier and happier lives.” What I really wanted to say was “Helping Muslim women live healthier and happier lives.” But I didn’t want to seem like I was trying to be hurtful by excluding everyone else. When I looked at other registered dietitians’ websites, they were rarely so upfront about who they wanted to serve.

Even without me explicitly stating where my passion lay, most of the women reaching out to me for nutrition guidance were Muslim like me. These women often shared that they wanted to work with me specifically because of that commonality. That’s how I began to realize that my presence as a visibly Muslim woman could make a significant impact in the often homogenous world of nutrition.

After six months of primarily helping this specific group of women, I changed my website’s tagline to represent that this was, in fact, my true goal. Since then, I have helped hundreds of Muslim women learn how to eat in a delicious, sustainable way that fits into their cultures and lives.

Of course, I will get the occasional person asking why I am excluding those who do not identify with being Muslim. My response is always that my goal is to actually increase inclusivity in the nutrition world by providing a service for a population that typically isn’t represented. There is room for all of us to learn how to eat in a way that makes us feel mentally, physically, socially, and culturally fulfilled. But that requires experts like me who can deliver that advice to groups of people who have historically been left out of this conversation.

There are a lot of different ways that I work with other Muslim women to provide them with the most culturally relevant nutrition information and advice I can. Here are just a few examples of how I tailor my focus to this specific audience.

1. I focus on how to eat healthfully without giving up your favorite foods.

Since my ethnic background is from India, I do bring that South Asian cultural influence when developing recipes. Still, I maintain awareness that Muslims come from a variety of different cultures, so I work to strike the right balance for my clients. Asking about their culinary traditions helps me know that the guidance I’m providing makes sense.

Incorporating my cultural influence has helped me provide nutrition recommendations my clients can actually follow, which in turn helps their families eat healthier as well. These women who have previously thought of healthy eating as restrictive are often grateful to learn that they can eat healthily and have their curry, too!

2. I give practical advice about how to fast in a healthy way, and how to break the fast while keeping up energy.

Each year Muslims around the world fast for 30 days for Ramadan, making this practice a significant aspect of life for many of us.

Fasting for Ramadan involves not eating or drinking from sunrise until sunset. When I was growing up, I would often get questions like, “Not even water?” and, “Do you have to?” Thankfully, times are changing. More people are starting to understand the custom due to increased interest in intermittent fasting. And, with the presence of social media, many more people are also understanding what Ramadan is and how important it is for Muslims to partake. But professional nutrition guidance on how to fast for Ramadan is still far too scarce.

So, during Ramadan, I provide resources such as meal plans and programs to help increase energy levels and adjust to the change of fasting for up to 16 hours. Ramadan is not only a spiritual time but also a very social one, which means there is actually a lot of eating happening during non-fasting periods. Navigating how to eat during the non-fasting hours is an essential way to be more productive while fasting.

I’ve also recently started providing resources to other registered dietitians and health professionals so that they can better support their clients who fast for cultural reasons, even with a medical condition.

3. I try to change the conversation around food and weight loss after pregnancy and childbirth in a way that is culturally sensitive.

I had my first daughter while training to become a registered dietitian and have since had my second. After I began sharing my experiences with motherhood on my Instagram Stories, I received an outpouring of responses from moms (many of them Muslim) who have been there.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who sometimes forgets to eat because I’m too busy looking after my girls! Becoming a mom allowed me to shift from being a nutrition expert who eats a certain way all the time to a woman who understands the struggle of getting a balanced meal on the table for herself and her family.

After mostly working with moms in 2018, I launched an online group program specifically for Muslim mothers. Muslimah Moms First is an eight-week program designed to help mothers achieve their nutrition goals and prioritize their health while also making healthy meals for their families.

One of the things I can’t ignore in the nutrition world, especially when it comes to new moms, is the heavy focus on weight loss. While I know that weight loss can be one of the possible effects of changing how you eat, I personally don’t like to focus on it as the main goal of my nutrition services. Initially, I didn’t like even mentioning weight loss in conversations with clients. But so many women come to me with weight-loss goals, particularly after having gone through pregnancy.

I started pro-actively addressing weight with my clients in an attempt to shift their focus to improving their relationships with food, making lifestyle changes that enhanced their physical and mental well-being, and helping them connect with their cultures. Most women joined the Muslimah Moms First program with weight loss as one of their main goals. Many finished with an overall improved relationship with food and a better understanding of how to feed themselves and their families in a healthier way while incorporating their cultures.

Healthy eating goes far beyond kale and an undue emphasis on weight loss. Helping Muslim women and families over the past three years has allowed me to address healthy eating through a culturally sensitive lens. It has given me even more pride in my identity and, in seeing how my clients’ lives have changed, has deepened my belief that nutrition advice needs to be culturally sensitive if it’s going to be effective.

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