It seems like every other minute there’s a new diet or wellness trend on the rise. They promise to make you healthier (which is often synonymous with, or code for, being thinner), and often they revolve around some sort of restriction. Take out the grains, and the bloating will go away. Remove the dairy, and the acne will clear up. Go keto, and the pounds will melt away. In my experience, the strategies that call for making big changes to the way you eat in service of a quick change to your body tend to be the least reliable solutions. And beyond that, I don’t consider them healthy or safe, especially for people with histories of disordered eating.
Aside from falling short of being able to produce sustainable results, a lot of the recommendations I see on wellness influencer social media and in mainstream nutrition just aren’t accessible, either because they’re blanket, one-size-fits-all solutions; because they’d be expensive or time-consuming to undertake; or because they’re marketed to a very narrow and specific demographic (translation: affluent, able-bodied, cisgender white women). There are so many ways wellness is directly and indirectly promoted to a small margin of the population, and ultimately, this means an enormously large sector of people are left out of the conversation.
As a registered dietitian, I find it frustrating to see how these messages translate into utter confusion for consumers, while making others feel like wellness isn’t for them, or would only be for them if they conformed to normative, mainstream (Eurocentric) notions about what it means to be “well.” Quick fixes and anecdotal evidence have taken the wellness industry by storm, and tend to overshadow practical, sustainable changes that most people can do. Assuming that whatever wellness regimen one particular influencer touts will get everyone who buys into it those same results is irresponsible.
The good news is, if you have a wellness platform, there are practical things that you can do to create inclusivity for your audience. And this isn’t just for registered dietitians or other health professionals. This can also be useful for yoga practitioners, food bloggers, therapists, media publications, really anyone who has influence over what shapes wellness today. Communicating clearly and with compassion are the foundations of working with anyone and everyone who comes to you seeking guidance.
1. When it comes to language, basic is best.
The way you use language to communicate your message is extremely important. When talking about health and wellness, it can be easy to fall into jargon traps. “You may develop dysbiosis, which can lead to conditions like IBS and SIBO, so it’s important to promote the formation of beneficial microbes in our gastrointestinal system.” Sound familiar? I see this all the time in the medical community, where patients have no idea what doctors are talking about, because the message is communicated in technical or jargon-y language. Another way to state the above is “This could cause an imbalance in the bacteria in your gut, which can lead to diarrhea or other GI problems.” Wellness terminology can come across as intimidating to someone who doesn’t know where to begin. It also isolates people who have low health literacy.
Break things down in a clear and concise way. For example, instead of saying “hypertension” or “cardiovascular health,” you can say “high blood pressure” or “heart health.” Get my drift? If you want to touch on certain topics like omega-3’s, for example, don’t assume that your audience knows what that means. Use the term but break it down to its most basic form. For example, “omega 3’s are fatty acids that may support heart health and reduce inflammation in the body.” Just by providing that simple line, people will have way more clarity from the jump on what you’re talking about.
Similarly to using language to communicate clearly, you want to use language to communicate in a kind and compassionate way. Oftentimes, wellness experts (again, whether dietitian, medical doctor, or social media influencer) are essentially telling people what to do. Blanket statements get thrown around, and an individual’s own specific life and circumstances are not taken into account. If you have a wellness platform, whether you’re an influencer, or a registered dietitian, you have the unique opportunity to help people figure out what works best for them…not you.
2. Be mindful of your tone.
In my experience, people who are seeking help or guidance on how to live healthier lives have been, thanks to the influence of mainstream culture, living with shame about not being well, especially if they have chronic conditions. And for people of size who also have chronic conditions? The shame is usually intensified, as medical providers and society attribute their health status to their weight even though weight and health are not interchangeable and are not necessarily connected. As wellness practitioners, we should communicate in a non-judgmental tone. Focusing on practical things people can do, versus all of the things they can’t, will help ease anxiety around shifting habits. Instead of saying “you should stop eating carbohydrates,” (pretty please, don’t ever say this, by the way), or “you should cut out all sugar,” focus on what people should be eating. For someone who struggles to eat more vegetables, you can ask, “What kinds of vegetables are you open to eating? Have you thought about ways to incorporate them into your plate?” This doesn’t mean that you should ignore someone telling you about their sugar intake. It’s more so about addressing all components of a person’s health in a balanced way, versus focusing in on everything they shouldn’t be doing. And random, but not so random side note, restriction usually never works.
Along similar lines, removing shameful commentary is important. Saying things like “the reason people have diabetes is because they drink soda” is inaccurate and counterproductive. Instead of using blaming statements, you can touch on the range of risk factors for a given condition—“Some of the risk factors for developing type II diabetes are related to things like weight. Something to think about would be things in your diet that don’t provide much nutrition, like soda, for example.”—and always pair that with helpful and practical lifestyle solutions.
3. Check in for clarity.
When you’re communicating with your audience, check in to make sure they’re following what you’re saying. This isn’t just about saying, “Are you following so far?” It’s about creating an environment that welcomes questions. This is especially important if you communicate with people one-on-one (as opposed to communicating to an audience on social media or in a blog post). If you’re in the online space, ask people to submit their questions about the topic you’re covering, and emphasize that you’re there to help and not confuse. If you’re on Instagram, I recommend using the questions feature on the app. It will help you create a space where questions are acknowledged and addressed. If you’re talking to someone one-on-one, a strategy I’ve found helpful when it comes to creating an environment where questions are welcome is saying something like, "I'm going to start with the most fundamental, basic aspect of this and work forward, assuming this is all new to you. But if you want me to do this in a different way, please let me know.”
4. Ask questions that will help you give relevant, culturally competent advice.
When engaging with your audience, keep in mind that your go-to recommendations may not be culturally relevant to them. This can leave people feeling like their traditional ways of eating don’t fit within the mainstream wellness paradigm. Instead of issuing blanket recommendations, be curious about what people from other cultures are eating, and take into account all of the nutritious foods that come from around the world. When people see themselves represented through your work, they are more likely to engage with you.
When you’re working with people from different cultural backgrounds than your own, the best way to learn about their traditional eating practices is by asking. And asking shouldn’t be followed up by recommending that they stop eating their cultural foods. There is an endless supply of nutritious foods from all around the world, and it’s our job as wellness practitioners to become familiar with diverse cultural practices. By doing this, we’re able to service people better. Ask people what foods they enjoy eating, what wellness practices are native to their country or culture, and what traditional methods of healing they’ve done in the past. This will help you tailor your recommendations to the individual.
Once you obtain information about someone’s cultural practices, incorporate that into your recommendations. For example, if a client tells you they love beans and tortillas, and want to find ways to eat more vegetables, the goal is not to tell them to stop eating tortillas. The goal is to explore what vegetables they’re open to adding to their plate with the tortillas.
5. Make an effort to bring the voices and work of underrepresented experts to your practice.
Use your platform to bring underrepresented people to the table. Engage with, listen to, and feature people that may not fit the dominant wellness archetype. Amplify their voices and gain perspective through their experiences. One way we do this at Food Heaven Made Easy is via our Dietitian Spotlight, where we feature a diverse range of dietitians doing creative work in the field of nutrition. You also can partner up with other wellness practitioners that are from cultural backgrounds other than your own, and exchange education and resources. If you have the power to affect images of wellness in media, make sure to showcase diversity in your images. Include people of different cultural backgrounds, skin tones, ages, and body sizes.
6. Acknowledge that there are plenty of real barriers that prevent people from accessing health-promoting resources or engaging in wellness-promoting behaviors.
Telling someone to take a walk in their local park because they can’t afford a gym, without taking into account that this person may not feel safe going to their local park, is one example I see all the time of a barrier being addressed ineffectively. The best way to be effective is by listening to someone’s experiences, asking questions, and assessing their individual situation. It’s important to keep in mind that there a number of barriers that affect people’s abilities to incorporate healthier habits. This is especially true for people living paycheck to paycheck, and in communities with limited access to healthy foods, fitness facilities, and proper health care. Oftentimes, willpower is promoted as the only thing a person needs to improve their health. External factors, like access, are not taken into account, and as a result, ineffective recommendations are given. There are, however, practical things that we can do to make our message more accessible.
By addressing barriers, you make it easier for more people to get what they need. Start by asking questions that will help you learn more about clients’ experiences. For example, “What are the food options you have in your neighborhood—in terms of groceries and restaurants?” or “What makes it difficult to eat balanced meals?” Also, “What would you need to have in order to make breakfast for yourself most mornings?”
You can also make recommendations that take into account barriers to wellness. For example, if someone doesn’t have money to regularly buy fresh vegetables each week, you can ask, “Have you considered buying frozen vegetables?” Or if someone tells you they want to incorporate more physical activity but can’t find childcare, you can ask them, “What other options are available to you at home, or nearby that allow you to bring your child/ren? Let’s brainstorm some ways you can get some more physical activity that won’t require spending more money and that can include your kids.”
7. Don’t try to be the superhero.
As wellness practitioners, we are eager to share all of our knowledge and resources with the public. We want people to live healthier lives, and want to help them get there. However, you don’t need to have the solutions to every single one of everyone’s problems. What you can do is work with people to help them figure out what solutions work best for them.
Instead of coming up with a solution for every issue of access that comes up, acknowledge that there are things you can’t fix. If someone is telling you that they have unstable housing and limited access to balanced meals, you may be able to offer resources like community centers and local pantries that can provide assistance. However, it’s important to recognize that these are major issues that won’t be resolved by providing wellness counseling. Then proceed to your next point.
So there you have it. Practical ways to communicate in a more inclusive way as a wellness practitioner. Keep in mind that these concepts can be applied to different settings. There are people who work in person with clients, and there are people who function entirely in the online space. We all have an opportunity to shift the way wellness is communicated to the masses. Let’s bring as many people as we can into the conversation, versus preaching to the same choir.
Wendy Lopez, R.D., C.D.E., is the co-founder of Food Heaven Made Easy, a multimedia platform for people who want to learn how to prepare plant-based meals that don't require hours of laboring in the kitchen. She is passionate about education communities on plant-based eating, in ways that are accessible and culturally relevant.