Maya Feller Shares her Outlook on Healthy Eating
In honor of this year’s Black History Month theme – Black health and wellness – Wegmans Corporate Nutrition Manager Trish Kazacos sat down with Brooklyn-based Registered Dietitian Maya Feller to discuss her background in the field, and her advice to customers looking to adopt new eating habits that promote health and wellbeing.
Trish: What led you to a career in nutrition and dietetics?
Maya: Unlike many of our colleagues, I did not originally set out to become a registered dietitian. My undergraduate degree is in experiential, avant-garde theater and philosophy. After undergrad my best friend/running partner and I decided to train for the Boston Marathon in support of one of our favorite charities. During training, my running partner began experiencing running-related health issues that landed her in the hospital twice. We couldn’t understand what was going on. On top of that, I found I was always hungry by mile 12, and started asking myself: Why is this happening? Where is my food going? What do I need to do to support my ability to complete a marathon? As I turned to Google for answers, everything I read piqued my interest. I not only learned how to train better, but also discovered that studying nutrition was a potential career path. I was accepted into the master’s and clinical nutrition program at New York University, and that’s when I started seeing the link between access to healthy food and human health. During my dietetic internship, my interest and desire to use my clinical skills and work in community nutrition grew.
Trish: This year’s Black History Month theme is “Black Health and Wellness.” What does this mean to you?
Maya: First, I think about where we are as a nation. The majority of people in this country are not well. We are dealing with high rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases that are impacted by poor nutrition. Then, I look at our Black communities. They are disproportionately burdened with these conditions for multiple reasons, including limited access to high-quality food, healthcare, and education. In order to see a shift in the health of Black communities, we need to change the systems by restructuring and improving access to affordable, whole and minimally processed foods that are culturally relevant. In addition, these foods need to be easily accessible in these communities, for example, at full-service grocery stores that accept cash, credit, and SNAP benefits.
Trish: According to a recent Pew Research Center study, the fastest growing segment of the plant-based population is African Americans. What is your response to this?
Maya: With limited access to quality healthcare, many Black Americans are focusing on what they have agency over. There is a renewed interest in what we put into our bodies and how that influences our quality of life. I’ve heard repeatedly from clients who are looking at it through the lens of, ‘how do I stay out of the hospital, while also avoiding the need to take additional medications.’ That’s where plant foods can help.
For some, that means taking on a strict vegan or vegetarian diet, but you can benefit from a more plant-based eating approach, without eliminating animal proteins. Healthy eating exists on a spectrum, just as health exists on a spectrum. A healthy pattern of eating is going to look different for everyone.
Trish: What are some barriers you find people encounter when adopting new eating habits?
Maya: A lack of knowledge or skill regarding food preparation is at the top of the list. Fruits and veggies are so versatile, yet many people don’t realize the myriad of ways to prepare and enjoy them. This is true for grains too, as many people don’t know how to make rice or how to make bread from scratch. As a country, many of us have left the kitchen. We need to encourage people to return to the kitchen by demonstrating easy, healthy, and delicious ways to prepare meals at home.
Food literacy is another barrier. When working with new clients, I start by first understanding what they think about food, and then help them unlearn any harmful behaviors or beliefs. From there, the focus is on flexibility and creating a pattern of eating that fits their individual needs. And that brings us to another common barrier – the belief that certain foods should be avoided or highly restricted.
Food is an important part of all cultures, and it’s important to keep those foods and traditions as part of a healthy eating pattern. When you consider Black culture in the U.S., there are so many different ways Black people show up and express their food traditions. People often talk about heritage recipes and ask me how to modify them to make them ‘healthier.’ I tell them, modifying the recipes is ok, if that’s what they want to do, but if they don’t, then they don’t have to. It’s about developing an overall eating pattern; not avoidance or restrictions. Diets don’t work by the shear nature that people go on and off of them. When considering comfort foods, ask yourself – how are they showing up on the plate, how are they prepared, who’s preparing it and how? It’s also important to remember that not all heritage foods are high in added sugars, salts, and saturated fats.
Trish: What advice do you give to clients as they prepare for a trip to the grocery store?
Maya: I encourage people to shop the store brand and the center aisles. Canned beans, dried nuts, seeds, whole grains, dairy items, and frozen veggies are incredible ways to enjoy high-quality, healthy products at an affordable price. I also remind people that they don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen to eat healthy, and shouldn’t feel bad about not doing all the prep and cooking themselves. Take for example, my lunch. I had blue corn tortilla chips, topped with cheese, premade salsas, and avocado. I felt nourished and energized by the meal, yet didn’t prepare any of it from scratch. Focus on realistic options that allow you to develop a pattern of eating that supports where you want to be and improves your quality of life.
Trish: From your personal experience shopping at Wegmans, what have you found helpful in supporting healthier patterns of eating?
Maya: I love fresh produce and seafood, so they are two of my favorite departments. Wegmans has a wide selection of organic beef and chicken, lower sodium deli meats, and the option to have a piece of cheese specially cut in the Cheese Shop. When time is the biggest hurdle to eating healthy, the prepared foods section offers a wide variety of prepared vegetables and sides that you can buy and have ready to go in the fridge. I love that all Wegmans Brand products and recipes use wellness keys, making it easy for customers to identify nutritional information at a glance.
Trish Kazacos, RD, CDN, is the corporate nutrition manager for Wegmans Food Markets.
Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist who is a nationally recognized nutrition expert.