Dietician and nutritionist Alice Figueroa was one of 10 people chosen for the James Beard Foundation National Scholars Program, which awards up to $20,000 to pursue studies in the culinary arts. A New Orleans native, Figueroa lives and works in New York, where she is using the scholarship to study at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts. Figueroa spoke with Gambit about the connection between nutrition, public health and chronic illness.
: How did you get interested in public health and nutrition?
Figueroa: I love working in nutrition. When I first became interested in health, it was actually on the political and policy side. I did my undergraduate (work) at Tulane (University) and I focused on international relations and mostly on health care policy. After that I did my masters at NYU and focused on international and community health.
While I was doing graduate research, I kept on running into the same question: What is driving our current health system, and what is fueling all the health epidemics our population is suffering from? The answer was always nutrition-related. I became really passionate about nutrition and I decided to train as a registered dietician, and I realized that a lot of the health issues that we're having, especially in the developed world, like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, are related to diet.
If we are able to reach people and empower them to eat well-balanced, natural foods that are still delicious and culturally appropriate, then we can prevent the onslaught of a lot of these conditions.
I work as a registered dietitian and nutritionist, mostly out of New York, but also in New Orleans. For the past few years, I've worked mostly at the community nutrition level for nonprofits that provide consultation, education, healthy cooking classes and health ser- vices for underserved commun- ities, mostly in the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn, mostly with the HIV-positive community and with children. I teach clients individually and create healthy cooking classes for my clients that are affordable but also well-balanced for their health needs.
With the scholarship, I saw the opportunity to deepen my knowledge in food and cooking to link my culinary passion with my health advocacy and nutrition experience.
: What do you tell your clients that are trying to eat healthier?
F: Living in New Orleans, I've always felt a pull towards food. I also grew up in a very culturally diverse family — my parents are from Guatemala and one of my grandparents is Japanese, so I also had an influx of different heritages that fueled my love of food. In Louisiana, we have the second highest rate of obesity in the country, but we have a lot of opportunity to try new things and to be leaders in the field.
I help people achieve their health goals, and sometimes I also help people reach their goals with weight loss. But I don't want my clients to feel restricted when presented with a diet. For me, it's important for a client to feel empowered and to actually want to learn about food and to become curious about herbs and spices and flavors and tastes. It's not about counting calories or about feeling guilty when you enjoy a slice of pizza or a po-boy; it's about balance. What are you doing throughout the week? Are you making sure you've got vegetables on your plate for most meals? Are you living an active life? It's a concept of mindful eating — tuning in to see how often you're eating something, when are you eating.
: How is chronic illness linked to nutrition on a global level?
F: I've done a lot of training with the World Food Programme, and we're currently seeing two trends: We have a chronic perceived epidemic in the developed world — U.S., Canada, England — and at the same time we're seeing a double burden of disease, meaning in developing countries like in Latin American or in parts of Southeast Asia, you're seeing countries that are developing economically and they're also developing more chronic diseases. In India, you see obesity rates skyrocketing, but at the same time you see malnourishment and children who don't have enough to eat. How do we address that? We have people that don't get sufficient food, even here in the U.S., but at the same time, we also have a segment of society that just gets too much food that isn't the right type of food to nourish our health.
A lot of academics and people in the field say you should approach this as a food system, meaning that we bring together different parts of our global society and economy to try to create sustainable solutions to these problems. That means bringing in the government, schools, community centers and hospitals. It means bringing in farmers, chefs and restaurant industry (professionals) and having an open dialogue.
The most important thing about taking a food systems approach is that you can also bring in everyday people. You can have a change in your food system by the way you eat, by the products you choose to purchase. All of these things impact our health outcome and impact our food system. I think it's really important and empowering that we're not powerless in this progression of chronic disease. You can take charge of your health.