Latina dietitian on a mission to bust nutrition myths and highlight importance of home-cooked meals

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By Juan Miret
LatinaLista

“You’ll never regret eating well.” A simple but powerful motto. Christy Wilson, a Latina registered dietitian and nutrition consultant from Arizona, believes and lives by that principle. And yes, she enjoys a not-so-healthy splurge every now and then; however, she has been blogging, writing, and teaching that healthy eating is not as difficult as some make it seem — it simply comes down to cooking more, eating mostly plant-based whole foods and not eating too much.

Wilson is among the top 10 Latina health and fitness bloggers, a recent distinction bestowed on her by Latina magazine. When she was in college, Wilson used to read health magazines but found herself often disappointed.

The reason: Registered dietitians were not penning the pieces that focused specifically on food and nutrition. The situation has improved, and she is a proof of it.

Wilson describes her professional progression and success as a natural result of her strong family-centered upbringing where her mother taught her the importance of “family meals, eating together, cooking whole foods and taking care of home.”

Wilson has spent almost her entire life turning natural day-to-day ingredients into tasty homemade meals. Her ability to connect with regular people, clients and top chefs, is perhaps one of her greatest assets as a registered dietitian. A proud Latina, who is always ready to add un chilito a la comida, is constantly showcasing our culture on a delightful plate.

LL: I would like to start with something that I saw recently. I was driving by a public elementary school in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I could not stop watching the school billboard. It said: Tuesday means Pizza! Then I said to myself: What?!

CW: A comment on your observation: I empathize with your reaction. I’d feel the same way if I saw this. Messages like these unfortunately echo the trend of most food marketing aimed at kids.

When you get parents who are trying to instill healthy eating habits at home, kids are getting mixed messages and it’s confusing. They wonder, who is telling me the truth? Who should I believe? Kids are trusting and they’ll believe what they see, read and hear before doubting the information they’re exposed to.

The worst part is, deceptive food marketing aimed at children not only lures them with vibrant caricatures, flashy ads and loyalty prizes, they’re now convincing parents that these foods are healthy by enriching junk foods with fiber, vitamins and minerals. This health-washing of foods today is a huge issue and one I am constantly bringing attention to over social media and in presentations throughout the year.

LL: One time you wrote about being frustrated with the abundance of false nutrition information being spread among the media. Then you began pitching articles to editors with the angle that the best source of credible nutrition advice is from an expert in the field: a Registered Dietitian. What was your motivation to start writing?

CW: Before reading an article that interested me, I’d look at the author’s name and the tiny bio that followed and it disappointed me that few writers had any experience in the health field. Why weren’t dietitians writing about weight loss, family nutrition and achieving wellness with a healthy diet?

Once I began my professional career, it became the thorn in my side. Why weren’t we busting nutrition myths? These are topics registered dietitians deal with firsthand every single day. My frustration inspired me to begin writing in the late ‘90s about health, wellness and nutrition.

LL: Is common sense lacking in public schools to offer good and wholesome food?

CW: Over the past few years, major strides have been made in effort to improve the quality of foods offered in schools. There is still a long way to go, but over a decade of stagnant regulations are finally being modified in an effort to improve the health of our young generation and decrease the rate of childhood obesity—which we know has skyrocketed within this time frame.

Incorporating changes like adding in more whole grains (like 100% whole wheat bread and pasta), more vegetables and fruits, decreasing the sodium and fat in school meals may all sound simple, but putting them into action has not been easy.

We’re seeing more farm-to-school programs being implemented, school gardens, programs like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and Chefs Move to Schools which is part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’sMove! initiative. Programs like these have created partnerships that are all aimed at teaching kids about food, about what they’re eating, where it comes from and how it affects them.

So even though these programs haven’t reached all schools in every state, implementing change to a system that hasn’t seen it in 15 years takes time, a huge amount of effort and resources, but I believe it is moving in the right direction.

For many children, schools may provide as many as half of their daily calories, so it’s critical that the foods they’re offered is nutritious. But, we cannot leave the responsibility of healthy eating entirely in the hands of public schools. When both parents are working and barely making enough to provide for their families, it is still important for families to nourish their young ones with healthy foods.

What happens at home, what kids see Mom, Dad, Abuela, Tío and their primos eating and drinking will have a huge impact on their future eating habits. Flavor preferences are shaped primarily at home. I constantly tell my clients who have children, give your kids the option to make healthy food choices. Keep fresh fruit and vegetables around, within a child’s arm’s reach, within their scope of vision. Offer these foods at mealtimes, especially if you’re only eating one meal together as a family. It’s so important. Their health now and in the future depends on it.

LL: Why do you think some people (sometimes me!) make a connection between healthy food means bad taste, not healthy food means great taste? Also, how can we live without a constant ‘diet’ and instead a life change?

CW: I think the perception of healthy eating is strongly influenced by the media and overall the message isn’t positive. When I think about the way the media portrays people attempting to get healthy, they’re drenched in sweat and gasping for air, they’re looking down miserably at a plate with tiny portions of food, or they’re downing some unappetizing looking shake.

“Diets” and “diet foods” are emphasized and this just reinforces the idea that diets are temporary. These manipulated images and portrayals of healthy living/healthy eating warp the public’s perception making it all seem, unattractive.

My mission and my reason for throwing myself into the social media hoopla about two years ago was to show the public there is no downside to eating fresh foods daily, to being active and feeling energized. We all have our vices, we all have a ton of excuses as to why we can’t live a healthy lifestyle, but there are so many ways around those excuses and so much to gain from it.

I have no problem documenting my own ups and downs on my personal quest to stay healthy and if that speaks to one person, I’m thrilled! We all know that eating healthy is good for us, but I want to show people it’s also economical, sustainable and most of all, delicious!

LL: What is your favorite Latino dish?

CW: Do I have to choose just one? There are so many delicious foods that remind me of home. From my mom’s homemade Mexican rice, gorditas, cocido and enchiladas, to my Tia Carmen’s homemade tamales and my Tia Cuata’s arroz made with her special sofrito.

One bite into each one of these dishes and so many beautiful memories flood my mind. One bite and I’m back home. One bite and I can almost smell the aromas drifting from their kitchens. One bite and the importance of family meals, cooking and continuing the legacy of their recipes (and all family recipes) are reinforced in my heart and mind. My absolute favorite dish has to be Mexican Rice.

The fact that some families are a generation or two away from cooking at home is heartbreaking to me. Is this the sign of our times? Have we abandoned home cooked meals to grocery store prepared meals, frozen entrees and fast food? I pray not.

Dietitian Christy Wilson with her two children.

Dietitian Christy Wilson with her two children.

LL: You cook with your two children very often. How is that experience?

CW: It is wonderful. It’s time-consuming and can be frustrating and even a little scary at times, but I always tell people that cooking with your kids is the most important and most precious investment of your time and energy. I can spend hours composing a blog post and be satisfied with my work, but it never compares to the time I invest in the kitchen with my kids. Never.

My kids are learning, they’re asking me questions and they’re engaged in an activity that is teaching them lifelong skills. There are few activities that children can participate in that can simultaneously teach them math, science, nutrition, dexterity, coordination, and the importance of team work.

No computer game or television show can teach my kids what I can teach them in my kitchen. When kids are in the kitchen, they’re adventurous, they’re trying new foods and experiencing what it feels like, smells like and tastes like. They feel comfortable asking me questions and I can answer them in a manner that is natural because the foods are right in front of us.

What a perfect opportunity to talk to them about vegetables and why carrots and peppers are healthy, why using too much oil isn’t necessary, how roasting chicken makes it tastes different than when you boil it. As soon as they were able to pull a bench up to the kitchen counter, my kids were mixing, pouring, measuring and tasting Mama’s food.

Every time we’re cooking, I tell them a little story about how my mom used to make a particular dish or a family memory I have about a certain ingredient or where we used to shop for a particular food back home. Food brings families together and I cherish that.

Christy’s favorite recipe: Mexican Rice

Ingredients
1 cup long grain white rice
1 tbsp canola oil
2 cups water
1 cube of low sodium chicken bouillon
¼ – ½ teaspoon Sazón Goya: Culantro y Achiote (found in Hispanic or ethnic food section. If unavailable, use regular season salt)
1/3 cup diced fresh tomato (or use petite diced canned tomato)
1 garlic clove, diced and smashed with knife in to a paste-like consistency
¼ cup diced onion
½ cup tomato sauce
¼ – ½ tsp ground cumin
¼ – ½ tsp whole Mexican oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup chopped cilantro

Directions
In a saucepan, heat water with added bouillon and Sazón.
While waiting for the seasoned water to boil, heat canola oil in a separate saucepan over high heat. Add rice to pan and toast until aromatic.
Add diced tomato, garlic and onion to toasted rice and mix to combine. Sauté ingredients for a few minutes. (Can add a little bit of cilantro here but save the majority to add to the fully cooked rice.)
Add tomato sauce to the rice and mix to combine ingredients.
Add boiling seasoned water to the rice mixture. Add cumin and smashed whole oregano and stir.
At this point, taste the broth and adjust seasonings to your preference.
Lower flame and cover pan. Allow the rice to steam for about 15 minutes.
Fluff cooked rice. Add fresh cilantro and fresh, diced tomato for added color and flavor.

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