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Diversity in dietetics

By Jinan Banna, PhD, RD

This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of the Ventures newsletter for the Nutrition Entrepreneurs Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Tell us a little about your background?

Growing up, my family always emphasized the importance of eating well, being active, and being open to new experiences. I was exposed to food from around the globe from a young age, as I grew up in California and have parents from different backgrounds. My mother is American, and her side of the family has Italian origins. My father is Lebanese. Both parents loved to explore the world. I traveled even as a young child and lived in Germany; there, I was known as “the littlest wine taster.” The exposure to different cultures continued as I grew, and I have fond memories of a trip I took as a teenager to Mexico City and surrounding areas with my mother, sister and family friends. I have continued to travel and reside in diverse locations as an adult, as well as seek opportunities to interact with people from diverse backgrounds. I feel very grateful for these experiences.

How has your background enhanced your dietetic practice?

As a result of my family’s background and interest in diverse cultures, I have become familiar with the people and culinary traditions from various world areas. This enhanced my previous practice as an outpatient dietitian in New York City, as my job involved interacting with diverse patients who reported their dietary intake as part of our interaction. My familiarity with many of the items consumed allowed for a smoother exchange and incorporation of these items into suggestions for dietary modification. This has also enhanced my teaching in my current position, as I am able to incorporate examples from my personal experience as I discuss concepts such as cultural competence. 

What is your definition of diversity and why it is important in the dietetics field?

I consider diversity to refer to the existence of individuals who are unique with respect to numerous characteristics; that could be in terms of age, religion, country of origin, race, physical ability, etc. Diversity is of paramount importance in dietetics to be able to provide the best care; as our characteristics influence how we relate to our patients and thus how our patients respond to us, we would be putting those we serve at a great disadvantage if we don’t embrace our unique characteristics and promote diversity on a large scale. 

How do you encourage people to honor the uniqueness of each individual?

Being curious about each individual and listening carefully is important. It’s easy to gather information on the basics of a person’s background and then assume we know about their cultural traditions and eating habits. It’s important not to make assumptions, as each person is nuanced. Just because they identify as being a person practicing a particular religion, for example, doesn’t mean that their habits and beliefs necessarily align with your knowledge of people of that faith. 

How do you challenge and promote sensitivity and inclusion in the dietetics field?

I seek to mentor dietetics students from underrepresented groups to promote increased diversity of practitioners in our field. We need to be sure that we have adequate representation from unique groups among dietetics professionals, and providing students from diverse cultures with a path to professional success is one way to foster this.

How has diversity helped you in your job role?

Diversity has helped me to grow as a professional. I am fortunate to work in a department made up of faculty and students from around the world, including from the Hawaiian culture. As a result, I have the privilege of working on diverse teams, which greatly enhances my perspective on issues at hand. Research has revealed that nonhomogeneous teams produce better outcomes than those that are less diverse, as the brain is challenged to consider different solutions to promote innovation.

What is one tip you have for others to be more culturally sensitive/aware?

Attending a training on cultural competence is one way to grow as a professional, as well as regularly and consistently seeking out resources on the topic. The Academy’s ebook on cultural competency for nutrition professionals is one place to start. 

How would having more diversity in dietetics providers improve our field?

More diversity in our profession will lead to more understanding of others, and this in turn will help us to relate to our fellow professionals, students, and patients. The more we can understand others, the more we can behave in ways that are respectful of our differences and celebrate the many similarities, building trust between people and allowing for culturally appropriate recommendations to be made.

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