January 30, 2020

Meet our upwaRD™ Winners: Alice Figueroa, MPH, RDN

How did you become interested in nutrition and dietetics?

I discovered my passion for nutrition at a very early age. When I was a young girl, I visited Guatemala and Mexico. In Latin America, I vividly remember seeing children who, instead of eating warm meals at home and attending school, spent their days on the street selling candy or shining shoes. This was the first time I awakened to the lack of food, education, clean water and love that many children face. These early childhood experiences inspired me to pursue a career that allowed me to work in health and food security advocacy for underserved communities.

My family has also been affected by chronic health conditions including cancer, heart disease, chronic digestive conditions, and renal disease. Both of my grandmothers passed away due to digestive system cancers, and my grandfather battled chronic renal failure. My hope is to be able to support patients like my grandparents through nutrition care and education. Nutrition is crucial to managing chronic and acute conditions and improving the quality of life of patients. Whenever I write an article, create nutrition education, or coach/counsel a client, I feel like I am honoring my grandparents and all people who bravely fight chronic diseases.

Personally, after Hurricane Katrina devastated my magical hometown of New Orleans, I suffered from digestive health issues, irritable bowel syndrome, and gastritis exacerbated by anxiety. I found that the best way for me to heal was to adopt a mindful lifestyle that includes a plant-centered, whole foods diet, meditation, and Yoga. As I healed myself, I began to focus my energy to bring healing and support to others. My hope is to empower clients to nurture their minds, heal their relationship with food, and restore their health.

How has the field of nutrition changed and how do you see it continuing to change in the next 5 years?

The nutrition field is becoming more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming to people from all walks of life. Nutrition is viewed by many as a luxury that is only accessible to those from higher socioeconomic status. I am inspired by the work of dietitians from diverse cultural backgrounds who are pioneering the democratization of nutrition and making health education more accessible to all members of our society. I am particularly excited to be conducting nutrition research in Latin America that will contribute to international efforts to reduce food insecurity, childhood stunting, and malnutrition in indigenous and underserved populations. It is my hope that in collaboration with food system stakeholders, we can address chronic malnutrition in an integral way, aligning research, education, and policy engagement to eradicate chronic malnutrition and stunting in Central America within a decade.

I am also excited about the conversation around nutrition to evolve beyond weight loss. While there is nothing wrong about wanting to maintain a healthy weight, it is important to acknowledge that nutrition is not about fad diets, restrictions, or detoxes for weight loss. Nutrition is about encouraging individuals to explore ways of maximizing overall health and happiness. It is about being a happy eater, feeling energized, and enjoying a nourishing and empowering relationship with food! There is no room for restrictive dieting or gimmicks. The food we eat should be nutritious & delicious and above all nurture our health, strengthen our bodies, calm our minds, and uplift our spirits.

The future of nutrition is about providing holistic nutrition education, programs, and communication that meets the unique medical, cultural, psychological, and emotional needs of our diverse global community.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received?

My parents and brother are my inspiration. They always remind me to be brave in my professional and personal life. The best advice I’ve gotten from them is to be courageous and fearless when pursuing my professional projects. You must have faith in yourself and your abilities in order to achieve your dreams. As FDR wisely stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Don’t let fear of failure dictate your decisions and keep you from creating a career and lifestyle that you love!

Name a career accomplishment that you’re most proud of – and why?

One of my greatest career accomplishments happened when I worked in a community-based nutrition program in Harlem, serving the HIV-positive community. I truly enjoyed working with the HIV-positive community. My clients were kind, thoughtful, fun, and eager to learn about healthy cooking and nutrition.

As a part of my work, I taught healthy cooking classes for my clients. I created a class about making the perfect smoothie jar. I was not sure whether my clients would be excited about preparing and carrying a smoothie jar, but I wanted to provide them with some easy, go-to breakfast and snack options. To my surprise, soon after my smoothie jar class, several of my clients began to prepare and carry smoothie jars!

My heart filled with joy when I saw my clients carrying their homemade smoothies jars. At that moment, I realized that my work truly had a positive impact on my patients and clients. A couple of my clients, who served several years in prison, said that being a part of my nutrition and cooking classes made them feel welcomed and loved after being incarcerated. Learning to nurture their health with good nutrition and delicious food allowed my clients to comprehend that they are valuable members of the community.

Anytime I feel exhausted or stressed, I close my eyes and remember my clients chopping fruits, washing greens, and whipping up smoothie jars. My heart fills with joy and renewed commitment to my work. Every time I think of my amazing clients, I rediscovered my inspiration and love for nutrition.

One thing people are surprised to learn about me is:

I don’t believe in food rules, and I am not the food police! People have the misconception that dietitians are individuals who follow restrictive diets. I am not one of those dietitians. I love food! I believe that food provides more than just physical nourishment. Food is universal. It unites us. We can all agree that one of the greatest joys in life is to eat good food. I believe that there is room at the table for all foods. We should eradicate restrictive dieting and practice happy eating!

What is your favorite part of your job?

I love to create nutrition content that unifies reputable science-based research and holistic advice about nutrition, food, yoga, exercise, health, and lifestyle. My greatest professional satisfaction comes from empowering and nurturing my clients to practice mindful living and happy eating philosophy. Without a doubt, my calling is to serve my clients as they embark on a journey to achieve their highest well-being goals.

I am also passionate about my work in food policy. I hope that through my work I am able to construct a partnership with diverse political, community, and economic stakeholders in Central America to coalesce a food systems approach to address food insecurity and malnutrition. My research focuses on creating sustainable and culturally appropriate nutrition interventions that empower underserved communities and brings us closer to eradicating child hunger and malnutrition.

What three things are on your bucket list?

  1. I would love to own a small farm, where I can grow my own fruits and vegetables! Within my farm, I hope to create an animal sanctuary to provide a home for farm and domestic animals that have been abused, abandoned, and neglected. I also wish to create a Yoga, nutrition wellness center, and farm-to-table restaurant on my farm. My dream is to create a magical place where people can attend retreats to promote self-healing and relaxation, learn about farming, and spend time with rescued animals.
  2. I am all about wanderlust! I would love to travel with my family to New Zealand, Patagonia, the Amazons, Japan, and Tahiti. Traveling allows me to embrace new cultures. The more I travel, the more connected I feel to humanity. Our diversity and common humanity are truly unifying.
  3. My dream is to create a non-profit that connects dietetic students/dietetic interns to international and domestic nutrition education/professional opportunities in underserved communities. Ideally, my non-profit would allow dietetic interns to provide telehealth nutrition services to people who lack access to affordable nutrition support.

What food is always on your mind and why?

I am always dreaming about baked goods! I love cakes, cupcakes, cookies, croissants, and of course- donuts. As a natural foods chef, I enjoy creating vegan baking recipes that are scrumptious and plant-based. I also create dessert recipes made from whole foods that do not contain highly processed ingredients. Since I work with children and adults with specialized dietary needs, I also like to prepare sweet and savory recipes that are health-supportive. In the kitchen, I like to concoct plant-based recipes that are heart-healthy, gluten-free for celiac patients, low-FODMAP for IBS patients, and gut-health friendly for digestive health. My passion for baking inspired me to enroll in a Pastry Chef training program in Italy this upcoming spring. I can’t wait to share scrummy, health-supportive pastry recipes!

Make sure to follow Alice for more nutrition inspiration!

Instagram: @aliceinfoodieland

Twitter: @alicefoodieland

Facebook: facebook.com/aliceinfoodieland/

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/alicefigueroa/

Alice Figueroa, MPH, RDN, Natural Foods Chef

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