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Nutrition

Starla Garcia is Helping Runners Embrace Their Cultural Identities Through Food

The dietitian and marathoner knows that when runners integrate their culture into their nutrition, they are more satisfied with their training.

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These days, when Starla Garcia, Olympic Trials marathoner, dietitian, and owner of The Healthy Shine, incorporates tortillas into her meals, she feels a strong and important connection to her Nahuatl ancestry. Many of the Mexican foods we eat today, including tortillas, aguacate (avocados), and elotes were staples in Nahuatl communities. This has always been a part of me, she reminds herself.

But these foods haven’t always provided a sense of comfort for Garcia. In college, after years of internalizing negative messages around some of the cultural ingredients she loved, she was diagnosed with anorexia. Hearing that commentary—for example, that tortillas would make her gain unwanted weight—made her feel like she was doing something wrong. She worried that if she didn’t eat the same way her peers did, it would affect her running and prevent her from reaching her full potential. Garcia eventually sought treatment and was able to find healing through a variety of methods, including—interestingly—adding tortillas and other foods that are an important part of her Mexican American heritage back into her diet. Now, as a dietitian who specializes in helping runners, she helps her clients of color embrace their own cultural identities through food in the same way she does.

As a Woman of Color, Garcia Relates to the Sport in Her Own Way

Garcia grew up in a South Texas community where, she says, “the pharmacist looked like me, the doctor looked like me, the administrators at school looked like me, my teachers looked like me.” She grew up believing Latina women could “do anything.” So when she started attending the University of Houston, the reality of her new environment was jarring. She no longer saw women who looked like her in positions of leadership and power. Garcia began trying to fit into the mold of what she thought was a typical track-and-field athlete. She often thinks back to the intense loneliness that consumed her the day she lined up for a race at the 2009 USA Junior Outdoor Track & Field Championships. “I wish there was one other person who looked like me that day,” she says. “Maybe a lot of things would have been different.” That experience jumpstarted many of the restrictive eating behaviors that led to her anorexia diagnosis.

It wasn’t until she was in recovery toward the end of college that she began to come to terms with her identity as a runner of color. It was the first time she had the realization that she still holds close to her heart: “I’m always going to be different. My food is different. I’m going to speak differently. I’m going to think differently. I’m going to relate to the sport differently. I’m going to look [different], and if my body is a representation of all of that, then so be it.”

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Around that time, Garcia remembers feeling a strong sense of love and security as she prepared foods that have always symbolized joy and celebration in her Mexican American family. This is when she made the connection: she didn’t have to let go of those foods in order to eat nutritiously.

Championing Cultural Diversity

During her earliest years as a professional dietician, Garcia worked with hospital outpatients, many of whom were Latinos. She spoke Spanish often and enjoyed being able to understand where they were coming from. This is when she had another idea. What if she could help another community she was familiar with? Runners.

Now that she’s worked closely with athletes for so many years, she says, without a doubt, “When people are able to integrate their culture [into their nutrition], they are so much happier in their life and so much happier with their running.”

Although Garcia works with all runners, she’s had clients from many communities of color, including Black and Indigenous communities as people whose ancestries trace back to Mexico, Central America, South Asia, and East Asia. It’s not uncommon, Garcia says, for these clients to say, “I came to you because I saw you and I didn’t know dietitians like you existed.”

One way Garcia helps her BIPOC clients embrace their cultural identities is by paying close attention to their particular physical needs. For instance, many BIPOC runners—especially those who train before sunrise—need to consume more vitamin D because the more melanin they have, the more reduced their body’s ability to absorb the vitamin from sun exposure, she says. Garcia also carefully considers cultural traditions, such as Ramadan or wearing a hijab, and the unique nutritional needs that arise for her clients who observe them.

Garcia enjoys helping her clients identify foods from their cultures that fulfill important nutritional requirements. When it comes to incorporating more vegetables, Garcia says, “It’s not just broccoli and kale all day long.” She offers collard greens, salsas, and kim-chi—foods her clients already eat and love—as valid alternatives. “I try to stress that we cook with a lot of vegetables, herbs, and spices already, so our foods are already anti-inflammatory. A lot of them just look different. [In my] foods—latino foods—there’s onion, tomato, garlic. You just may not see it right away, but they’re in there.”

It’s not just the physical needs of BIPOC runners Garcia addresses—she identifies their mental and emotional ones, too. Spending time getting to know a new client is one of the first things Garcia does. “I don’t think enough providers do that with people of color in general and I think sometimes there’s a lot of unchecked bias.” Garcia herself has experienced the feelings of isolation that come with being the only woman of color in a training group, which is especially challenging because she believes many BIPOC runners place particular value on the sense of community that comes through the sport. Yet, she’s observed that during long runs—a time when athletes often form deep connections with each other—white runners, assuming they don’t have anything in common with their BIPOC peers, are reluctant to dive deeper into emotions with them. Many of Garcia’s clients, she says, “geek out with me in that hour about running and sometimes I’m the only person that they get to do that with.”

Storytelling—a powerful and effective tool among many communities of color—is another technique Garcia incorporates into her work with BIPOC runners. For example, she might help a client who grew up eating mostly processed foods understand why that is by encouraging that person to imagine what life was like for his or her first-generation family members. Was produce from their native country hard to find in America? Was it expensive? Did it not taste as good as it did back home? Perhaps that’s why they chose to buy convenient, less expensive processed options. Eating behaviors, she told me, always lie deeper than the food itself.

Getting Other BIPOC Runners to the Starting Line

Garcia thinks it’s important for people to know that it hasn’t been an easy path to get where she is. She walked away from a full-time, salaried job with good benefits to work somewhere that would provide her with enough time to train and qualify for the Olympic Trials. It required a lot of sacrifice, but without her OTQ, Garcia believes she would have had to work three times as hard in order for athletes to pay attention to her or take her seriously.

“I really think that for people of color, that happens a lot,” she says. “I don’t think I’m the first person to have to overcome that challenge.” In addition to earning her OTQ, Garcia enrolled in courses to learn more about entrepreneurship and developed a strong social media platform before transitioning to full-time work with The Healthy Shine.

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Yet, when asked how she feels about her success, Garcia says,”It makes me a little sad because I wish there were more dietitians of color.” While she feels “lucky and extremely privileged” to have been able to make the sacrifices necessary to navigate her career, she wishes there were more people like her working in her community. In the meantime, Garcia is doing what she can to bridge the gap between her industry and communities of color. Not only is she constantly working to make her services more accessible to BIPOC, but she’s also reaching out to students, hiring interns, and hopes to encourage more aspiring RDs of color to join her in her efforts.

Despite the challenges, Garcia is rewarded in many ways through her work with BIPOC runners. She enjoys helping them perceive their cultural foods differently. She loves watching them develop confidence and execute great races. “It’s very important that they’re out there because they’re unknowingly influencing someone on the sidelines that wants to do it, but doesn’t feel like they can. Or also somebody right next to them or behind them.” In other words, Starla Garcia is helping each BIPOC client she works with become exactly the kind of runner she needed all those years ago when she lined up at the start of the Junior Championships, wishing there was just one other person who looked like her.

This story originally appeared on Women’s Running.