Ask Keri: As a wellness professional, how can I make sure my practice serves clients from a diversity of backgrounds?
Keri Says: This is such an important question to tackle at this moment and time, but it’s also a question we should be asking ourselves every step of the way—from the start of our careers onward.
After many years teaching and engaging with all kinds of wellness professionals through the Nutritious Life Studio’s educational programs, I know that nutritionists, trainers, yoga teachers, and health coaches are service professionals. Almost all of us choose these jobs because we are driven to help people live healthier, happier lives. Figuring out the best way to do that is an ongoing process.
As a registered dietitian who has been seeing clients for nearly 20 years, one of the important principles I’ve come to depend on is that “wellness is personal.” The concept is even part of the Nutritious Life Manifesto: “Whatever science or tradition says, if a strategy isn’t right for your body and your lifestyle, it won’t work. Every individual is unique, and there is endless variation in terms of what your most Nutritious Life looks like.”
But here’s the thing: The fact that every individual is different doesn’t mean that overarching factors like race, gender, and economic status don’t have a serious impact on health risks. In fact, scientific evidence tells us those factors are inextricably linked to varied outcomes in terms of diet-related diseases, mental health, and more.
So, if we want to support a diversity of clients, we have to recognize those factors, when, for example, a Black woman comes in to work on her nutrition goals versus a White man.
Here are some tips and resources to prepare yourself and your practice to better serve a diverse clientele, especially to support historically underserved populations in living their most Nutritious Lives.
How to Build Diversity and Inclusion in Your Wellness Practice
1. Educate Yourself on Racial Healthcare Disparities
Recently, it’s become clear that Black Americans are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Unfortunately, that’s a current example of how people of color have long faced higher disease risks and worse health outcomes in the US.
A 2017 report found that Black Americans are at higher risk for high blood pressure and are twice as likely as White Americans to die from heart disease, and that Black people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are more likely to live with or die from conditions like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, which typically occur at older ages in White people. Another example: The mortality rate for African American women diagnosed with breast cancer is 42% higher than for White women.
As a wellness professional, your first job is to educate yourself on these disparities before a client sits down in your office or steps onto a yoga mat. That doesn’t mean you should stop treating each client as a unique individual (don’t!), it’s just about educating yourself so that you’ve got context whenever you need it.
2. Consider Culture and Life Experiences
Race and culture are not the same thing, but they can be intertwined in many ways. And dietary patterns and preferences are heavily influenced by culture. If your client is Jewish and keeps Kosher, your Simply Roasted Shrimp recipe isn’t going to fit into their healthy eating plan.
By the way, it’s also important to respect and give credit to the cultural roots of health foods that are presented as new “trends” in wellness. Often, those foods are “new” only in the sense that White people are starting to eat them. Take turmeric, for example, which we love at NL. While it’s gotten a lot of attention in the past few years, it’s ancient. In fact, Indian people have been using it in food and medicine for thousands of years. Acknowledging those cultural roots is an important step towards making sure the way we talk about health and wellness is not framed entirely by a White perspective.
Finally, another piece of wisdom from the NL manifesto: “We like to ask big, philosophical, and scientific questions about the best ways to lose weight and stress less, but it’s the stuff of life—meetings, bills, phone calls, family drama, and annoying errands—that distracts, damages, and derails us from our true purpose. Dealing with those details is where the magic happens…” In order to serve diverse clients, you’ve got to acknowledge that that “stuff of life” may be very different for people from different racial and economic backgrounds. Acknowledge that you may not know what a client’s “stuff” looks like if their background is incredibly different from your own, and ask questions instead of assuming.
3. Consider Issues of Access
Some of the health disparities mentioned earlier are partially attributable to the fact that Black people are also less likely to receive preventive care and often receive lower-quality care. They’re also less likely to have health insurance. As wellness professionals (and especially for those of us in a position of white privilege), it’s our job to actively work to address those inequities in care.
Maybe that means making an active effort to change your marketing to diversify your clientele or offer special services to historically underserved populations. Or maybe it means pricing your services on a sliding scale, offering discounts for people of color and/or low-income clients, or setting aside a certain amount of time each month to offer free or donation-based sessions.
In the end, we can all do our part in making nutrition and wellness more inclusive and tackling health and wellness disparities. One of my most important principles is the idea that all of the different pillars of living a Nutritious Life—from stress to relationships to eating habits—are connected and influence each other in all directions. It’s a philosophy that intersects with tackling disparities, since race and gender and economic status are all interconnected, too, and influence each person’s ability to live their healthiest life. And learning to serve people from a diversity of backgrounds will also make you a better wellness pro.