When you’re a student heading off to college for the first time, the last thing on your mind is the all too familiar rite of passage called the Freshman 15. This phenomenon signifies one no longer has parental guidance (or interference) when it comes to what is eaten and was definitely the case for registered dietician Vanessa Rissetto.
The marketer turned nutritionist and co-founder of Culina Health experienced not 15 but a 50-pound weight gain during freshman year, which prompted a conversation about food as well as how to have a healthy relationship with it.
“I didn’t realize how important food was growing up. I am Haitian and I am first generation and food is at the forefront of our culture and how we connect,” says the dietic intern director for New York University (NYU).
“My mother cooked every meal at home. Growing up, we didn’t eat out. Sometimes I would have a pizza or sometimes I would have McDonald’s, but that wasn’t a weekly thing,” Rissetto says, who also shared she didn’t learn how to cook with her mom growing up.
“So when I got to college and the food the was available to me was pizza and chicken fingers, I just ate it because that is what was there.”
After graduating with a degree in history and returning home, she began eating her mother’s food again and lost 40 pounds. What she realized was the fresh and unprocessed meals prepared daily were not only culturally important to how her family expressed itself but were also vital to one’s overall health.
Process This, Not That
Risetto continued her education by receiving a master’s in marketing. A career move took her to London every month, and although it may have had the optics of a dream job, the New York native didn’t see how she was going to progress from there. She also felt something was missing and questioned whether what she was doing actually helped others.
She decided it didn’t and eventually left.
A lasting impression from a dietician Rissetto worked with after college to lose ten additional pounds remained in the back of her mind. Recalling the positive experience, she says she remembers thinking, “Wow, I could probably do this for people. I could probably help people.”
She acted on those past thoughts by enrolling in New York University’s dietician program, where she graduated and worked with as many diverse patients as possible to understand their needs, goals and guide them accordingly.
When asked about what to eat, what not to or how much, Rissetto shares, “Moderation means different things to different people. You have to meet people where they are at.” Not one to discourage people from eating their favorite foods, Rissetto focuses on health literacy and making sure individuals understand what they are eating and how it impacts their body and weight.
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Part of her work with patients and clients includes coming up with actionable goals, along with strategies and tools to achieve those goals. She says, “People need buy-in. Nutrition is very personal. You have to eat every day.” You have to make it personal.
Creating a Diverse Space for Health and Food
Currently, 81% of registered dieticians are white. Fully aware of the lack of diversity among dieticians and therefore cultural relevancy when working with patients, especially people of color, Risetto contributes to this conversation in a big way by overseeing NYU’s dietician intern program.
“I felt like this is the way that I can probably make a bigger change. In the last 25 years, those in the position did not recruit diverse interns.” In addition, she says not only did her predecessors not recruit, but they also didn’t do any outreach or other activities to build a diverse applicant pool.
Thanks to Risetto’s efforts, today is a different story. Under her leadership, 24- 40 diverse students are accepted to complete a 1200-hour hospital-based internship that includes six months of course work and six months of clinical. Her priority is to facilitate their journey of becoming a dietician.
“I talk to them very, very candidly about race.” So I take my job very seriously for the students, so they can be culturally competent practitioners,” says Risetto.
When she is not shaping her students' future, Rissetto is working with clients through Culina Health, which she co-founded with fellow dietician Tamar Samuels. The expert-based nutritional coaching platform helps simplify healthy eating plans with the goal of eliminating stress when it comes to food.
Risetto and Samuels are hands-on in training their staff to ensure they are delivering on the brand values. Virtual coach sessions, coupled with the acceptance of different health insurance plans, makes Culina Health accessible to many.
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The Fordham University alum, who specializes in weight loss and management as well as the management of chronic diseases and gastrointestinal issues, shares that there is still a lot to unpack when it comes to the industry. Most importantly, making sure information, resources and services are available to everyone who seeks them from all racial and economic backgrounds. “We need to give people education and we need to support them.”