Food and Nutrition

Meet the Latinx Dietitian Fighting to Make Space for Her Community in the Nutrition World

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A few weeks ago, on the morning of her daughter’s birthday, Dalina Soto woke up and told her more than 20,000 Instagram followers that she planned to enjoy the day with her family and unrepentantly eat birthday cake. Because her daughter woke her up early in a fit of excitement, Soto shared that she decided not to do her usual morning workout—and had no plans to make it up the next day.

These actions might not seem particularly groundbreaking upon first glance. But Soto isn’t just an ordinary citizen; she’s a registered dietitian with a Master’s degree in nutrition. Eating without guilt, self-examination, or shame is the foundation of her practice—which can feel like a rarity on Instagram amid the sea of posts about “clean” eating, fasting, and detoxing. Every slice of pizza, serving of white rice, or lick of whipped cream she shares on her page is in defiance to those who define health and beauty by their proximity to whiteness and thinness.

Soto is a proud, first-generation Dominican-American and speaks to a primarily Latinx audience, whom she fondly calls “Chulas.” This is another rarity in the nutrition field—only 3.3 percent of all U.S. dietitians are Hispanic or Latinx, while 78 percent are white. Soto encourages her community to love their bodies, their food, and their culture, in large part because American society often shames curvier Latinx bodies and vilifies many cultural foods as “unhealthy.”

Soto is a self-described anti-diet dietitian, meaning she rejects mainstream diet culture and its glorification of thinness as a universal standard of beauty and health. Rather than emphasizing weight loss or calorie restriction, Soto focuses on the full experience of eating—how it makes someone feel mentally and physically—while actively trying to break down the walls of fad dieting. She is familiar with these barriers because she had to overcome her own issues with food.

Navigating the nutrition field as a Latinx dietitian

Growing up, first in the Bronx and then in Philadelphia, her mother cooked every meal and she enjoyed the traditional dishes of their country, including plantains, rice, beans, yuca, pork, and chicken. Like many Latinx Americans, food is a key part of her cultural identity, and she said she grew up never feeling negatively towards any foods.

When Soto began studying nutrition in 2006, for the first time she started to question what she ate. The statistics she learned in class were shocking. Hispanic adults are almost twice as likely as their white counterparts to be diagnosed with diabetes, and they are 1.2 times more likely to be obese. Since these conditions are often linked to diet and lifestyle, Soto, like many others, blamed the foods ubiquitous to so many Latinx cultures: white rice, Mangu, even the beloved tostones.

“For a while I kind of drank the Kool-Aid,” she says. But instead of making her healthier, she says rejecting and vilifying cultural dishes harmed her relationship with food. She recalls going on a no-sugar diet for a while and being insistent on finding “healthy” substitutions for her favorite foods. She also tried to convert her family, suggesting that loved ones apply alternatives to their meals and dabble in diet trends.

“The nutritional recommendations are made by people who never stepped foot in a Venezuelan home or a Dominican home or in any way have ever experienced our foods.” —Dalina Soto, RD

Soto started to realize that the white bias in her education overlooked a lot of nuances affecting the health of her community. “We’re saying these things that our communities eat bad and that our foods are bad but we’re not looking at the whole picture,” she says. From her experience working with Latinx communities, there were larger issues that had a bigger impact on health than whether or not someone ate white rice. USDA data shows that Hispanic households are more likely than white households to be food insecure, meaning they are uncertain if they will be able to acquire food for the whole family. Studies have shown that food insecurity is associated with diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Many members of the Latinx community also struggle to access quality health care, which undoubtedly plays into the health disparity there.

Soto also grew frustrated with the fact that so many health and nutrition standards are steeped in whiteness. The majority of the dietary studies she learned from were performed predominantly by white people on white bodies. The body mass index (BMI), which is still used as a universal measure of determining obesity, was created by measuring white, male bodies. But these standards don’t make much room for different body types—which has been deeply harmful to the health and self-esteem of Latinx women, she argues.

“Women of color or people of color have always been somewhat bigger genetically and to try to thin them out—it’s just wrong,” she says. “The medical system and our scientific world needs to do research that is going to help us understand [people of color] better. We’re creating these ideals or medical recommendations based on Eurocentric or white ideals, and we’re not looking at the big picture.”

Soto says this bias extends into nutritional recommendations, as white American standards of health often permeate into the diets of other cultures to classify certain foods as either “good” or “bad,” which can make people feel bad for eating these foods. “[Nutrition] is whitewashed,” she says. “The nutritional recommendations are made by people who never stepped foot in a Venezuelan home or a Dominican home or in any way have ever experienced our foods.”

This deeply concerns Soto. “I feel like there’s going to be a point where all of our cultures are going to be erased and I don’t want that to happen,” she says.

Helping her community heal and thrive

After years of struggling to find the right balance between honoring her culture and the health needs of her community, Soto landed on the anti-diet mentality. “When I found the Health at Every Size and intuitive eating world, it all clicked,” she says. “I realized that’s what my community needed but I didn’t know there was a name for it.” These two health and nutritional philosophies—both of which have existed for decades but gained steam in 2020—seek to separate weight with worth, treat people in larger-sized bodies with compassion and respect, and aim to promote healthier, more neutral relationships with food.

In her practice, these two philosophies allow her to honor and preserve the culture of her Chulas while adjusting as needed for any intolerances or conditions they have. “We don’t have to change the dishes our ancestors created because we want to continue to pass that on to generations,” she says. “We want to keep our culture alive.”

Instead, she focuses on adding these dishes into her clients’ eating habits in order to satiate them while caring for their health concerns. “If you actually have an intolerance or an allergy,” she says, “it’s my job to tell you: This is when a substitution is proper.” But swapping, say, white rice for cauliflower rice just for the sake of being “healthy” is unnecessary—and culturally insensitive. She prefers to expand a client’s eating with foods naturally created to fit their allergies than substitutes.

“I feel like there’s going to be a point where all of our cultures are going to be erased and I don’t want that to happen.” —Soto

As an anti-diet practitioner, Soto also seeks to help her clients and followers start healing their relationship with their bodies. To that end, she makes it a priority to educate her followers about body positivity and being comfortable in their own skin. “It’s about everybody being treated with dignity and respect,” she says. “You don’t have to fit all these European beauty standards and you don’t have to be the perfect fat.” She is well-aware of the fact that she is one of only a few BIPOC anti-diet dietitians on Instagram—others include Christyna Johnson, RD, and Shana Spence, RDN—and her messaging is different than what is found in more mainstream “body positivity” spaces.

“The body positivity movement was created by women of color to find a place,” she says. “It has always been this taboo thing, and then all of a sudden, Instagram came into the world and then everybody and their mom wants to be body positive, but only up to a certain point.” (Read: Proclaiming that “every body is beautiful” while still encouraging people to lose weight or diet.) As such, Soto also uses her platform to remind her followers that fatphobia has racist roots and nutritional science revolves around it—providing a much-needed intersectional lens to wider body positivity conversations.

Soto occupies an uncharted space for Latinxs in a field that often excludes them. Through her kind, supportive, educational social media presence, she’s created a community to give a space for her followers to love themselves and post their #ChulaWins. That, in and of itself, is revolutionary.

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